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RSS makes it really simple to keep up with latest news

You might not have heard of RSS — that’s Really Simple Syndication — yet, but this information management tool is winning fans by helping users stay up-to-date on the latest news available on the Internet in the most time-and bandwidth-efficient manner possible.

One way to see if there is new information on a Web site, including ones for news or business, is to check every five minutes. But by using a software program to read RSS, updates are available that display only headlines and short summaries of the latest information.

“It is essentially a way of communicating to the outside world when a Web site or similar document has changed,” said Dr. T.J. Jankun-Kelly, an assistant professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Mississippi State University. “Whenever a new article is published or an article has been changed, you can get an extra file that will change whenever the Web page changes.”

Jankun-Kelly said the extra file is a condensed version of the information that has changed; it only gives you the bare bones necessities of what has changed, when it has changed and sometimes who changed it.

“So RSS is essentially a file format that communicates when a Web site has changed and what information has changed,” he said. “It contains the title and a URL to the larger story. It is fairly popular on news sites because they frequently update.”

RSS uses an extra piece of software called a RSS reader or RSS aggregator, which are the same name for core technology that runs in the background. The reader checks regularly to see if information has changed.

“The nice thing about this technology is it can update from numerous sources simultaneously,” Jankun-Kelly said. “For example, say I’m interested in water sports. I could have links to local newspapers, boat manufacturers, boat Web sites, and have the software set to highlight ‘water sports’ in the title. I could see all that is new in one view instead of hunting all that information individually. That is the main power of the technology.”

Jankun-Kelly said there are three main types of people who benefit from using RSS:

• People who need to be notified when information on a Web site changes (assuming that the Web site publishes that information via RSS).

• People who need to aggregate information from multiple sources quickly.

• People who wish to keep the public updated on the information they control.

“The first two uses are for readers (subscribers), and the last is for publishers,” Jankun-Kelly said. “I could potentially see all three being used in a financial/business setting.”

Dr. Eric Aitala, Web master for the University of Mississippi, said some Web browsers can handle and look at RSS news feeds directly and sometimes you need a separate browser.

“I have a set of links on my Mac that are just RSS news feeds,” Aitala said. “Basically, various Web sites provide the feed. I grab the link to that feed and store it. The browser checks every half hour to see if it has been updated. If there are three new articles on a subject important to me, I can link and go read the full story.”

Aitala said he likes RSS because it is a great way of providing information in a nice packaged format that is easy to digest. Certain news sites like BBC and in Mississippi, The Sun Herald, are providing RSS. The advantage is you don’t have to download their entire Web site and instead can go only to the information of greatest interest.

“It saves time,” he said. “It saves bandwidth. I can set my aggregator up to look at 100 different Web sites, and the RSS news reader will do it automatically. After I come back from lunch, there it is waiting for me. I can look at the most recent 15 articles. It is a slick little technology.”

Another advantage is there is much less data transmitted. You don’t have to download a lot of graphics and/or deal with pop-up ads. Needing less bandwidth is particularly a big advantage for people who use cell phones or PDAs to access information on the Internet.

“If I’m on my Palm Pilot, and there is a story I want, I can go get a specific story without surfing through someone’s entire Web site,” Aitala said. “It is a quick way of getting the information out there. In my browser I have an aggregator so I can look at the news articles in all my groups. I can go through it quickly, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time. It is a good tool that is becoming more and more widespread.”

Some RSS programs are available free online. Typing in “RSS reader” at a major search engine like Google will give a large number of options.

“There are probably 100 or 200 good news readers,” Aitala said. “You can get one for PCs that runs on Windows or one for a Mac. You can even download one for your Palm Pilot or even cell phones. Some browsers, like the new Apple Safari browser for Mac, have RSS built into them.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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