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NewsGator and the Surfless Web

I used to spend the first two hours or so of every day wandering around the World Wide Web, catching up on the daily news and technical developments. This bout of concentrated Web surfing inevitably left me waiting for fancy graphics and banner ads to load, which isn't very useful when you're just trying to skim the news and pick out the parts that might interest you.

Well, no longer. Now, just about everything I need gets delivered straight to my copy of Microsoft Outlook. This includes mainstream news stories, notices of new software on Download.com and SourceForge, technical blog entries from developers I trust, press releases, and information from the trade press. With everything in one place, it's become a lot easier for me to scan and find the bits that I really want to read. Now I can get through even more news in far less time.

What's caused this change in my habits? A combination of a technology and a product. The technology is RSS, and the product is the $29 NewsGator, which just announced the imminent release of version 2.0.

You've probably heard of RSS, but just in case you're a little vague on the concept I'll review the basics. RSS is a simple XML file format that's designed to hold headlines and stories. The format is so simple that you can put together an RSS file by hand, although you probably won't need to; there are dozens of tools to help do the job. You can find some of them by visiting the RSS resources list that I maintain. Most content management systems, from humble weblog engines to the big players, can automatically produce an RSS file (usually called an "RSS feed") from updated content.

The other half of the RSS equation is a piece of client-side software called an RSS aggregator. An RSS aggregator visits a collection of feeds that you specify on a regular basis, perhaps once an hour. As it downloads them, it checks to see which items in the feeds are new since the last time it grabbed a copy, and displays them to you. That's really all there is to the technology; an XML-based contract for passing "what's new" information between Web servers and desktop clients.

NewsGator is the client that I've settled on for my own use, because it integrates directly with Microsoft Outlook, which is the one application that I have open all day, every day. Each of the RSS feeds that I subscribe to is presented in an Outlook folder, filled with messages. Coupled with an Outlook 2003 search folder or NewsGator's own HTML root folder, I can see all of the fresh news in a single list, just waiting for me to decide which parts I'm interested in. Although the feeds come from Web publishers, I never need to visit a Web site; all of the information just shows up on my desktop. It's like Web surfing without ever opening a browser. I like to think of this as the Surfless Web.

RSS has been around for about five years now, but there's been an explosion in its usefulness lately, for three reasons. First, more and more Web sites are making RSS feeds available. Second, aggregators are adding advanced capabilities; NewsGator 2.0, for instance, offers a way to synchronize multiple copies so you don't have to read the same news at home and at the office, and also has a Web-based interface for those times that you're away from your e-mail entirely. Third, RSS is making its way into other applications as a general means of communication. My source code control system, for instance (I use SourceGear Vault) provides an RSS feed of recent checkins. Now, when someone on my development team checks in new code, I get notified right through Outlook. My bug-tracking tool (FogBUGZ) similarly provides an RSS feed of new bugs.

Overall, RSS has made a huge difference in my use of the Internet. I still pull as much information as ever off the Web, but now I don't waste nearly as much time in the browser as I used to, waiting for sites to load (or time out). Instead, I let my aggregator do all the heavy lifting, and just absorb the information when I'm ready to devote a few minutes to it. If you've never experimented with RSS, I recommend taking a few minutes to find out what it can do for you. For an overwhelming list of the available information, drop by syndic8, a valiant attempt to catalog all of the thousands of RSS feeds on the Internet.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy has been developing software for a quarter-century now, and writing about it for nearly as long. He walked away from a .NET development career in 2006 and has been a happy Rails user ever since. Mike blogs at A Fresh Cup.

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