I'm a news junkie. I've always subscribed to a variety of IT magazines, and over the years, it's really helped me to stay abreast of developments. Staying up to date on what's new can take a lot of work, though. There's a lot of information available if you want to hunt it down, but instead, why not have the information come to you?
Many web sites now offer XML-based content syndication that allows you to see headlines as they appear, and link to content if it looks interesting. The syndication techcnology is known as RSS (really simple syndication), and although it’s been around for a while, it’s just now starting to catch on in a big way.
I first saw RSS three years or so ago when I began using PostNuke (see “Whaddy got under the hood?”) as a development portal. Its standard install has always had a link in the page footer that said something about using “backend.php” to syndicate news. I was curious, so I checked it out. It turns out that this page delivered RSS version 0.91 content syndication – headlines from the web site in XML form.
Further investigation showed that there were some primitive tools emerging that would read these feeds. PostNuke, in fact, had (via add-ons) the capability of using these feeds to display a block of headlines from sites like Slashdot and CNet. At that time, there weren’t too many sites offering RSS feeds, and you could expect to do a little hand work if you wanted to consume these feeds.
The history of RSS syndication reads like many web standards – there are a few popular versions and several more abandoned offshoots. The original RSS was introduced as 0.90 by Netscape. A refined version, 0.91, was promoted by UserLand Software, and was widely adopted as the first mainstream RSS format. Several other 0.9x standards were published, but none really usurped 0.91. Finally, a 1.0 release and a 2.0 release are both based on RDF (Resource Description Framework), though 2.0 is by far the more popular. Of this multitude, most feed you’ll find these days will either be 0.91 or 2.0, and most readers can handle either. I’ve included a couple links at the end of this article that you can follow for more background.
All RSS feeds are XML-structured documents (you can often spot links to RSS feeds on web sites by looking for the [XML] logo). If you take a look at the raw XML, you can see the general idea. Don’t dwell on the XML, though, because in the next section, we’re going to look at applications you can use to read RSS feeds.
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1" ?>
<!DOCTYPE rss (View Source for full doctype...)>
- <rss version="0.91">
<description>PostNuke Powered Site</description>
<title>Whaddya got under the hood?</title>
<description>Just in cast you're wondering what makes AppDev go,
it's powered by a Content Management System (CMS)...</description>
<title>Tip: building connection strings from scratch</title>
<description>Here's a tip posted by someone on the VB-DATA list.
It's already come in handy ...</description>
RSS Readers / using RSS
There are a number of applications available to read RSS feeds. You can scare up dozens of choices by searching for “RSS reader”. The basic functionality you’re getting is formatting of the XML feed, but a decent reader will allow you to set up a number of feeds and keep track of the items you’ve read.
Here’s a screen shot from SharpReader, my current favorite. One of the nice features about SharpReader is that you can set it up to poll for new stories and notify you when they’re posted with a little IM-like box.
Who’s got feeds?
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a very good chance these days that your favorite web site will have an RSS page. Here are a few popular sites that you may want to monitor to help you stay abreast of development technologies.