James O'Neill's Blog

April 25, 2006

RSS for the bewildered.

Filed under: Internet Explorer,RSS,Windows Vista,Windows XP — jamesone111 @ 5:04 pm

The volume of web content is overwhelming. And it keeps changing – we could spend all day just checking discussions, news, blogs and so on in the hope of finding something new (a process I call “Optimistic Browsing“).
Shouldn’t stuff come to us ? After all, computers are good at polling. I don’t want it in my inbox – that’s like having the day’s TV or the supermarket’s special offers delivered with the post.

Enter RSS “Really Simple Syndication”. And it is Really Simple. It’s a standard for an XML document to give a list of items on a web site. Items in the list are either a self contained block of text, such as a blog post, or a link and a short explanation of what is found there, or something to download.

That’s it!! – a way of giving a list of items. Why get excited about that ? Suppose the XML document is dynamically created so that as content on the web site changes, downloading one document lets you see new stuff without the need for optimistic browsing making it perfect for blogs, or news – places where RSS has found a natural home.

If XML seems scary you can skip the next bit, but I wanted to show just simple an RSS feed for news can be: I’ve edited the BBC’s one down slightly but not much.

<?xml version=”1.0″>
<rss version=”2.0″>
  <title>BBC News | News Front Page | World Edition</title>
  <description>Updated every minute of every day</description>
  <copyright>Copyright: (C) British Broadcasting Corporation</copyright>
  <lastBuildDate>Thu, 01 Sep 2005 14:33:21 GMT</lastBuildDate>
   <title>Shots disrupt US storm evacuation</title>
   The evacuation of hurricane victims from New Orleans’ Superdome is disrupted after a helicopter is shot at.
   <guid isPermaLink=”false”>
   <pubDate>Thu, 01 Sep 2005 14:33:23 GMT</pubDate>

So a feed consists of one or more channels, which have one or more items.
A channel has a title, a description, and so on. It can tell the reader software how to behave – such as the number of minutes to wait before getting an update (the time to live or TTL).
I trimmed this channel down to one item: each item has a title, a description, a link, a Globally Unique ID (the GUID – the BBC use the page’s URL for this) and the publication date.Like channels, items can have extra tags.
You’ve probably heard of “Podcasting“, a podcast item is just like any other RSS item except it has an Enclosure Tag, like this:

  <title>Broadcast from September 1st 2005 </title>
   BBC correspondents take a look at stories in their regions.
  <pubDate>Thu, 01 Sep 2005 11:00:00 +0100</pubDate>
  <guid isPermaLink=”false”>
  <enclosure  url=”http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/radio4/xxxxx.mp3″
   length=”8473360″    type=”audio/mpeg”   />
The only things which has changed is the enclosure tag replaces the link tag, and says what to download. Yippee ! I can download radio shows and listen to them at my convenience.
But wait… The enclosure is a URL and a mime type. Who said it has to be an MP3 file? It could be photos, calendar items, software updates, homework assignments, document templates, product information. In short not Podcasting but Anycasting. This blogcast by Darren Strange  shows how the next generation of Sharepoint will make lists into RSS feeds – and how Outlook 12 will be able to consume them. Darren’s video is only 14 minutes long, but if you’re in a hurry to see the RSS stuff skip forward to 5:45

Now, when we get Windows vista we get a new version of Internet Explorer – IE7 Beta has been back-ported to Windows XP. IE7 understands RSS (and other formats like Atom, which do the same job). There’s a good summary about it in the RSS team blog  .IE 7 recognises links to RSS on a web page, it manages subscriptions and downloads and offers a simple view of the feeds. But the power is in NOT using IE as a viewer. It’s simple for other applications to use the content – a screen saver which shows your pictures can leave fetching and parsing the XML documents to IE.

You may have already got an RSS reader – I’ve been using Attensa for Outlook 11 – I don’t want the stuff in my Inbox, but Outlook is the best reading tool I have – Eileen talks about other readers  Putting RSS into IE won’t make the readers go away the CEO of Newsgator makes some good points on this.

Here’s an easy prediction, with RSS reading in Outlook 12, RSS support in IE7 and all sharepoint 12 lists available via RSS it’s going to be very big over the next year or two.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

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