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.
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.
That's also true if they're signed up to receive podcasts (music or spoken-word audio files) or subscribe to iTunes feeds.
In fact, if RSS really succeeds, you'll forget you ever heard of the term. It'll just be another part of the invisible "plumbing" that runs the Internet, says John Palfrey, executive director of The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.
"The key to RSS going mainstream is for the people building these technologies to stop thinking of it as RSS and to start thinking about it simply as 'How do people access information?' " says Mr. Palfrey, who also cofounded a company last year called RSS Investors, which is funding ventures that aim to use RSS in innovative ways.
Feeds will be used more and more behind firewalls to track everything from medical records to legal documents, "anything that's frequently changing" within a work environment where "people need to know that updates are happening ... so that they don't have to keep checking back to see if something has changed," Palfrey says.
Adds Taylor: "There's a lot of companies who are going to have a lot of really interesting uses of this technology in the next 24 months."
"We are still in the early stages of things, but at the same time it's accelerating," says Mark Fletcher, the founder of Bloglines.com. "We've definitely seen the exponential growth curve."
While most people receive alerts from their favorite websites through e-mail, feeds offer a key advantage: They're spam-free, Mr. Fletcher says. Subscribers don't have to give out their e-mail address. If they don't like what's in a particular feed, they simply unsubscribe.
Using Bloglines, people are tracking packages and getting weather updates, Fletcher says. The site now tracks about 1.6 million feeds, though the total number is probably many times that. The average user subscribes to about 17 feeds (Fletcher has 203 in his account), he says.
People may come to Bloglines intending to keep track of their friends' blogs, but the site then exposes them to other possibilities, including feeds from major newspapers, magazines, and popular bloggers. "They find this whole additional world of information that they can track," he says.
But pessimists worry that RSS might contribute to an opposite trend. "To the extent that people can tailor their [online] news environment, they're just going to keep reinforcing their own views, rather than exposing themselves to more views," Palfrey says. That argument was first raised by Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor, in his 2001 book "Republic.com." In it, he proposed that people might cocoon themselves within their own "Daily Me" pages on the Web in which they follow their own narrow interests and screen out everything else. That could be unhealthy for democracy, which relies on civic participation and an interest in the common good as a kind of "social glue."
That hasn't happened yet, Palfrey says, but the real test may come when RSS feeds become more widely used and provide an easy means for creating a "Daily Me."
A surge of popularity for RSS feeds could attract two other familiar online trends: advertising delivered by feeds and online criminals. Security experts suggest that hackers might gain access to feeds in an attempt to send readers to fake malicious websites in so-called "phishing" attacks. But so far, no such attacks have been reported.