Thursday, October 19, 2006

Getting Started with Syndication (Part 2)

In Part 1 I talked about syndication technology (RSS and Atom) in general terms. Like many things, syndication makes more sense once you try using it.

If you're still scratching your head and wondering what the fuss is about, my recommendation is that you just dive in and have a look. That means you need a reader.

You can find lists of readers in a number of places; the DMOZ Open Directory project has one organized by platform, as does the RSS Specifications web site. A little Googling will turn up all kinds of information. So which do you pick?

Readers fall into three general categories: stand-alone software, web-based, and web browsers.

Stand-alone software is exactly what it sounds like: programs for viewing RSS and Atom feeds. Well-known options include FeedDemon for Windows and and NetNewsWire for Macintosh.

My very personal thought: I'm not a big fan of any of the standalone software I've tried, and I don't recommend this approach for novices. The programs are full of features and quite powerful, but I've yet to find one whose interface was really all that comfortable or intuitive. That's just my opinion; there are lots of people who love these readers, and you might become one of them. But I'd suggest trying a web-based or browser reader first, and considering software if you become a real power user.

Web-based readers are also plentiful, and in most cases are free. The best-known are Bloglines and NewsGator. I've used both and they're quite good. It's easy to get started; go to their web sites, create an account, and start adding feeds. When you return to the site, you'll see which feeds have new content; click and read.

A new entry in this category that I've started using and am very pleased with is Google Reader. The first version was pretty clunky, but Google has just upgraded it and it's like a whole new program - and a really good one.

If you use Gmail, you'll find the interface very familiar. A few aspects of it need some work (there's a bit too much clicking from screen to screen in the subscription management area for my taste) but overall, it's really good.

All of these readers let you organize feeds into folders; I have folders for marketing blogs, friends' blogs, news blogs, and so on.

One big advantage of web-based readers: you can use them anywhere you can find a PC with an internet connection. If you use more than one computer regularly, that's a big advantage.

Another benefit of a web-based service: many now offer support for mobile devices. So if you're a road warrior, you can read feed content your electronic ball and chain... er, I mean, mobile phone or BlackBerry or other such device.

As much as I like web-based readers, I think that web browsers are going to be the way most people use RSS and Atom feeds.

What do I mean by browsers? Very simply, web browsers that incorporate feed reading features.

Firefox, the open source browser that's made a big dent in Internet Explorer's share of the browser market, has incorporated some primitive RSS features for some time now; but they're not terribly helpful for keeping up with feeds. You can create "bookmark folders" for feeds, but the tools for keeping track of what you're read are nonexistent.

However, a new (2.0) version of Firefox is coming soon, and I suspect that the feed functionality will be improved. I haven't seen it yet, so I can't really comment on it.

Internet Explorer, the default browser for the majority of users, had no feed features at all. However, version 7 of the browser is now available, and it includes feed support that's really excellent. Feeds are handled like bookmarks: you can subscribe to them and have a list of your feeds (organized by folders) a click away at all times.

Best of all, finding feeds is easy. Whenever you're on a page that has a feed, an RSS icon on the toolbar switches from grayed-out to active. Click it, and you'll see the feed, and a link to subscribe to it.

Explorer will also automatically download all the new feed content at an interval you select.

If you work on one machine all the time, I think that the easiest way to start using feeds is to download IE7.

For Mac users, there's Safari, Apple's browser, which has similar features. If you're using a Mac you've already got it, and I'd recommend starting there.

To summarize then, this is my (very personal) recommendation:

If you want a web-based reader that's available wherever you are, try one of the services mentioned above. Those are also good choices even if you work on one machine all the time, but in that case you can also try IE7 (if you use Windows) or Safari (if you're a Mac user).

Whichever you choose, actually using RSS and Atom feeds will make a lot of the buzz about them make sense. Have fun!

Next: creating customized feeds to track topics that interest you.

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