The Internet Funnel

Matchmaker: RSS finds the latest Web entries of interest to a user.

Plugged In

July 15, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

They're multiplying on the Internet like a bad case of measles: little orange buttons - seemingly innocuous and often marked with the letters "RSS."

But some say the technology behind them could alter the face of the World Wide Web.

The letters stand for "really simple syndication" and represent a method through which subscribers can automatically gather information from multiple Web sites.

Just as TiVo is changing the way some people use television, downloading programs only when they want to see them, RSS is helping people manage the gusher of information available on the Internet. The technology alerts people to the latest data on topics they've selected - from classified postings to sports scores - and delivers it to their computers.

"It has potential to be as big as the Web itself," said Sean Gallagher, a Hampden-based editor at, an online technology magazine. "It's changing the way people consume information."

The initial premise of making money on the Internet by attracting as many "eyeballs" as possible has long since been discredited in a heap of shuttered companies and worthless stock options. Internet "content providers" are seeking ever more precise ways to match users with advertisers and information they're mostly likely to have interest in.

This next evolution is reflected in recent headlines about Google's new "Gmail" service and America Online's impending purchase of Inc. in Baltimore for $435 million. Just as Gmail matches e-mail subjects with related advertisements and charges only for Internet ads that generate a consumer's response, the RSS tabs popping up on Web sites intend to channel the vast Internet to the user.

Subscriber in control

Enthusiasts say the technology will one day allow people to create personalized TV networks as the television industry goes digital, and even service a high-tech car while it's on the road.

"The subscriber is in control, not the publisher," said Anthony Casalena, a University of Maryland senior who last year created Squarespace Inc., a Web design company that syndicates in RSS and similar formats.

To use RSS, software that creates a "reader" is needed. It often can be downloaded free, though Apple Computer Inc. has announced that it will include a reader in its newest operating system, due out early next year. Microsoft Corp. is rumored to have the same plans for its 2006 operating system, though a spokeswoman said it was too early to confirm that.

Custom searches

The readers can be programmed to search specific sites. For example, music fans can tailor their RSS readers to search for the latest information on their favorite bands. If there's something new out there, the reader will find it and deliver a summary to the user. To read the full content, users still have to click a link to the information and view it on a Web site, but they avoid the hassle of going to the site to check for new information if none is available.

"You can't monitor 400 Web sites in a day, but with RSS, you can find out if anything has changed on 400 Web sites," Gallagher said, adding that the process has earned a buzzword: "broadcatching" instead of broadcasting.

As a technology journalist, Gallagher uses his reader to keep tabs on the competition, subscribing to feeds from forward-thinking "bloggers," people who keep online Web logs of commentary, and trade publications. But he also offers his own Web log - "blog" - content as RSS feeds that alert his readers to new posts, such as the latest pictures of his three children.

The technology was first embraced by bloggers when RSS was introduced in 1999, and they're still the most prolific users.

But the development is now reaching beyond hard-core techies to major media, such as Yahoo Inc., which added RSS-formatted feeds to its news and group-discussion sites in January. More than 100 newspapers use RSS as well, including The New York Times and The Sun, which has offered its content as a feed since the spring of 2002.

"Really within the last year, it's sort of hit critical mass," Gallagher said.

But most Internet users aren't yet aware of, or using, RSS - The Sun has only a couple of hundred people reading stories through it each day - and many people don't yet see a reason to do so. They aren't surfing dozens of pages per day or keeping tabs on any particular type of news.

Casual users could appreciate the technology for other reasons, though, said Marci De Vries, who owns an online public relations company in South Baltimore. De Vries sees the feeds and readers as possible replacements for company "blast e-mails" sent out to the employee masses, in part because the spam factor is cut way down.

"There's no way you can spam somebody's RSS feed because nobody knows you have it," said De Vries, who presses her clients to adopt RSS.

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