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The latest info - tailor-made for you

Web users track what interests them through 'Really Simple Syndication.'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 19, 2006



Mike Richwalsky has an online helper who keeps him informed. It tells him when his friends post new items on their websites or new photos to sites like Flickr. It advises him on what Netflix movies he might want to rent and gives him the latest scoop on his favorite sports team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It also alerts him if his name, or that of Allegheny College, where he works as a Web administrator, is mentioned online. It's even ready to signal him if an online merchandiser gets a hard-to-find Xbox 360 game console in stock.

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His helper is an RSS aggregator. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and its purpose is in fact really simple: "Feed" the user information every time a weblog, news source, or a selected website has been updated with new information.

Mr. Richwalsky subscribes to about 200 RSS "feeds." Without them, he says, he'd never be able to keep up with so many interests. RSS helps "simplify my life," he says.

Nearly everyone online seems to know that "spam" is unwanted e-mail and that you had better have a "firewall" to protect you from nasty secret programs like "spyware." But only about 9 percent of Americans who go online have a good idea what RSS is, according to a poll last summer by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. And only 4 percent have knowingly used RSS, adds an October poll commissioned by Yahoo.com.

That number may grow considerably in 2006, thanks in large part to expectations that RSS will play a prominent role in the new Windows Vista operating system, scheduled for release later this year. RSS probably will be "baked into" Vista's updated version of Internet Explorer - a Web browser used by nearly 90 percent of those online today. Some other browsers, such as Firefox and Opera, already contain RSS aggregators.

"I think [including RSS in Vista] is going to be a very significant milestone," says Dave Taylor, whose company, Intuitive Systems in Boulder, Colo. (www.intuitive.com), helps businesses with their online communications. "The real onus is on Microsoft to make [using] it a total no-brainer."

For example, when someone tries to bookmark a website to remember it, the browser should ask: "Instead of bookmarking, do you want to subscribe to a feed from this site?" "And you click, and it's done. That's it," Mr. Taylor says.

Millions of websites already offer RSS feeds to readers, often symbolized by a small colorful box on their home page that might be marked "RSS," "XML," or "RDF." The problem is that when people click on these buttons, all they see is a lot of computer coding and odd symbols. "And then you say, 'This isn't for me,' and you go back to what you were doing," says Taylor, who runs a website (www.askdavetaylor.com) that answers questions about Internet use.

Today, people have two basic options for collecting feeds. They can download a small program (most are free) that works with their browser. (One list of RSS aggregators can be found at http://blogs.law. harvard.edu/tech/directory/5/aggregators.) Or they can set up an online RSS account using a free service like Bloglines (www.Bloglines.com) that sends feeds to a customized Web page. In fact, many people don't realize that if they've set up a personalized news page on sites such as www.my.yahoo.com or www.my.msn.com, they're already using RSS feeds without thinking about it.

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