updated 2/27/2004 7:32:54 PM ET 2004-02-28T00:32:54

E-mail is crippled, concussed by an irrepressible spam stream. Web surfing can be equally confounding, a wobbly wade through bursts of pop-ups and loudmouthed video ads.

And that may explain the excitement these days over a somewhat crude but nifty software tool that automatically delivers updated information to your computer directly from your favorite Web sites.

Enthusiasts see these Web feeds as sketching the outline of the next Net revolution.

The technology behind them is called RSS and I rely on it daily to consult The New York Times, the BBC, CNET News, Slashdot and a few dozen other Web sites that employ RSS to make the very latest news stories or bits of commentary available for the plucking.

Aided by software on my computer that goes out and retrieves my feeds, I swiftly sort through headlines and summaries. By clicking on included hyperlinks, I can visit originating sites for more detail.

“For an average Internet user who regularly visits about 50 Web sites, rather than have to go visit those 50 sites wouldn’t it be cool if those sites could somehow visit you? And not only that, but if they could also tell you when they’ve changed?” said Greg Reinacker, head of NewsGator, which sells an add-on for Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail client that offers one leading way to read feeds.

Hundreds of thousands of Web feeds are available, spurred by the popularity of Web logs, which account for their bulk. One site that has been sorting feeds since 2001,, added 7,326 in January — its biggest monthly jump — to its collection of more than 53,000 information streams.

Some of that upsurge was election year fever as Democratic presidential candidates led by Howard Dean daily turned on the RSS spigot to “broadcast” to supporters.

But Web feeds are no Howard-come-lately. Info generators of all kinds — big media, government and non-profits alike — are embracing them.

From tunes to tremors
Disney leverages the technology to deliver video clips for and Apple’s iTunes generates a feed to alert subscribers to its latest sounds.

Anyone who builds a Web site can incorporate Web feeds. If it lives on the Web, it can be brought to your desktop — or to your wireless device, for that matter.

Human Rights Watch keeps activists current with feeds sorted by region. The U.S. Geological Survey’s feeds let seismologists immediately know where the world is shaking.

The U.S. Product Safety Commission just began providing recall notices via RSS. General Motors offers feeds on topics including safety and automotive tech. And a growing number of companies use feeds to disseminate info internally.

“If you’re not reading it in RSS you’re wasting your time,” declaimed Microsoft’s blogging evangelist, Robert Scoble, who says he subscribes to nearly 1,300 feeds.

RSS has been called the TiVo of the Web, the first “killer app” of the anticipated automation of social and commercial transactions online using the Web’s second-generation XML (extensible markup language) standard.

Alas, you’ll not find the tools for handling RSS in your Microsoft Windows operating system. Not yet, anyway.

You’ve got to go out and get them, just like you had to download Netscape or one of its competitors in 1994 when you wanted a Web browser.

But the writing is on the wall. And it’s not graffiti; the feeds are spam-free — though advertising may be pumped through some eventually.

Yahoo and Google recently embraced Web feeds, and Microsoft is expected to incorporate tools for managing them in its next-generation operating system, code-named Longhorn.

Yahoo’s new search engine trolls through RSS feeds in addition to Web pages. And a five-person company called is trying to build a business around customizing searches of 500,000 feeds — and then delivering you the search results in a single feed.

RSS feeds vary in length and capability. Depending on how a Web site decides to serve them up and how a given aggregator wants to organize them, feeds can be simple, spare text or bold and multimedia-flashy.

And that’s what makes them both exciting and frustrating.

First, it’s not simple for the non-techie to configure RSS. If they’re obvious on a Web page, the feeds generally are offered as orange buttons that read “XML” or “RSS.” There’s no uniformity to feeds, though the best include a good headline and a succinct summary. You can choose to have feeds delivered to your desktop or gathered by a Web-based service.

“It can be really hard to get people to look at it. I tried to get my father, who is a news junkie, to look at it and he wouldn’t,” conceded blogging guru Dave Winer, who created the Web-based aggregator Radio Userland.

More 'pull' than 'push'
Programmers who’ve developed rival versions of RSS since its 1999 invention — primarily by Winer and folks at Netscape — can’t agree on what RSS is supposed to stand for. Winer’s preference is Really Simple Syndication (RDF Site Summary and Rich Site Summary are the other options).

At least it’s nothing like the fiasco of 1997 known as “push technology” and incarnate in PointCast, which wrote its death warrant by clogging hard drives and crashing operating systems as it delivered updated information to subscribers.

RSS is more pull than push. Your aggregator retrieves the updated material from the feed-offering Web site at set time intervals.

For an introduction, offers a dumbed-down beta version. Web-based aggregators including and are popular because there’s no software to download — and they’re free.

FeedDemon, a downloadable cross between an e-mail client and a Web browser, is feature-packed and costs $30. NetNewsWire for the Mac, also a download, costs $40.

If only the RSS prophets would stop squabbling.

Winer is among those who consider the standard complete; others insist it must become more versatile if it’s to be an engine of the next-generation Internet — a smarter, two-way street rather than just a blind delivery vehicle.

Anil Dash, vice president of business development for Six Apart, whose Movable Type is among the Web’s leading blogging products, says RSS is broken. He promotes a more robust and flexible alternative called Atom that got a big boost when, Google’s blogging service, began supporting it in January.

As with most technologies, the market will settle these scores. But first, the market itself has to develop.

Major content providers want to ensure that any feeds they offer drive traffic back to their Web sites.

“The benefit to us is we’re distributing our headlines and the users come back to the site,” said Catherine Levene, vice president for business development at New York Times Digital, which has been quietly offering feeds for two years.

Many RSS-watchers predict Web feeds will eventually morph into ad-delivery vehicles because it can be expensive to run a Web site that serves up hundreds of thousands of feeds daily, draining bandwidth.

Nevertheless, boosters like Jeremy Zawodny, a software engineer at Yahoo who promoted RSS feeds there, are convinced that 2004 will be the year the technology goes mainstream.

“Remember when you first starting seeing URLs appear on billboards and at the end of movie trailers?” Zawodny wrote in his blog in December. “It’s going to be like that. One day we’re just going to look around and realize that RSS is popping up all over the place. And a couple years later, we’ll all wonder how we ever got along without it.”

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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