If you're a news junkie, an online auction lover, or someone who wants to know when the latest songs, DVDs, and books are released, here's a technology that's perfect for you. Called Really Simple Syndication (RSS), it lets you pull together a list of Web sites you want to follow. So instead of surfing through The New York Times site for news, going to eBay (EBAY) to track a particular auction, or checking with Apple's (AAPL) iTunes to see when a new recording is available, you can get access to all the information through one Web page or download to your computer. The information you get, called a feed, comes to you through a piece of software called a newsreader.
RSS has simplified my job as a technology reporter. I used to visit a dozen sites every hour or so, from the geeky blog Slashdot to CNET's online news service, to check up on tech news. But since I signed up for Bloglines, a free RSS service, I can scan all my favorite sites for the latest developments in a minute or two.
The simplest way to get started with RSS is with My Yahoo! (YHOO), a personalized service of Yahoo! that's free to any registered user. To set up RSS feeds, go to the main My Yahoo page and click on the "Add Content" link. That takes you to a page where you have three options. Yahoo provides two preselected groups of feeds to choose from -- entitled Editors Picks and Most Popular. These offer a range of sites including USA Today, ESPN (DIS), and the satirical newspaper The Onion. You can also customize a list by typing the RSS of your favorite sites into a box or using a specialized search engine to find sites using keywords. Your choices appear as a list of headlines and story briefs on your My Yahoo page.
How much info each feed provides depends on the publisher or e-tailer. Some publishers, such as the popular political gossip blog Wonkette, post entire items, while ESPN, The Wall Street Journal, and others provide only a headline or synopsis. To read the full text, you click on the item and go to the publisher's site. You will still need to have subscriptions at sites that require them.
Bloglines is a more sophisticated RSS option than My Yahoo. What's especially helpful about Bloglines is a little bit of software you download that sits on your desktop toolbar and alerts you whenever updates come into the sites on your list. By contrast, the only way to check for updates at My Yahoo is to go to the site. Bloglines also shows the colorful graphics and pictures that go with the news items.
If you want to avoid the extra step of logging on to the Internet, a range of downloads directly to your computer lets you track your RSS lists. NewsGator folds into the Outlook e-mail software. Ideal for people who live in e-mail, it is listed on the left side of the Outlook screen, along with such items as inbox and calendar. FeedDemon is software you download that sits on your desktop, like an instant messenger program. They sell for $29.99 online and contain no ads. Pluck integrates directly into the Internet Explorer browser, appearing as a list of feeds on the right side of the browser window. It's free but splashes ads under the feeds.
Getting hooked on RSS is easy. But this is an addiction that could save you time and improve your productivity.
By Heather Green