One of the hottest new buzzwords on the Internet today is "RSS", but what is it?
Despite what other sources may tell you, it is an acronym for "Really Simple Syndication", and was developed as a mechanism for sending textual data across the Internet, formatted as an XML string.
Uh-oh! So what is XML?
Although that could be a separate article, you probably need at least an overview of XML to understand what RSS is about. XML is a means of encapulating data within user-defined tags that describe what kind of data is enclosed, so that a computer program can understand how to separate and relate the items properly.
A simplified example is below:
<description>List of Employees</description>
Notice that the tag sets are matched and nested. A program would be able to parse this data and build an employee list with names and descriptions without knowing in advance what kind of data is coming.
RSS, then, was developed to use this format to syndicate simple text, like headlines. The problem arises because there is not one standard RSS format. Ready? Fasten your seatbelt.
The original version of RSS 0.90, was designed by Netscape for syndicating headlines for news sites. It was considered overly complex for their needs, so a simpler version, 0.91, was developed, but then dropped when Netscape lost interest. Version 0.91 was picked up by another vendor, UserLand Software, which intended to use it for weblogging products.
Meanwhile, another group split off and designed a new format based on what they perceived as the original guiding principles of RSS 0.90. This format, which is based on RDF (Rich Document Format), is called RSS 1.0. UserLand was not involved in designing this new format, and, as an advocate of simplifying 0.90, was not happy when RSS 1.0 was announced. Instead of accepting RSS 1.0, UserLand continued to evolve the 0.9x branch, through versions 0.92, 0.93, 0.94, and finally 2.0.
That makes seven different versions of RSS, most of them not entirely compatible with each other.
None of this should matter to the end-user, except that websites will sometimes offer options to subscribe to different versions, based on your aggregator, so you should know what works best for your situation (I forget, what's an aggregator? Keep reading).
So, how do I use RSS?
Until recently, you needed a separate program, called an RSS aggregator, which could fetch the RSS feeds to which you were subscribed, parse the XML, and display the contents on the screen. You could the read the text, and often click on links to other websites for more details.
Several modern browsers now have plugins that do this for you, so it is now as simple as choosing a link under your bookmarks or favorites, and see the text in the browser. Firefox has "Sage", and Internet Explorer has "Pluck". Both of these are easy to find (Google) and install. In some cases, the browser will announce to you that there are new items to view on that channel.
When visiting websites that feature frequently-updated content, look for the (usually) orange RSS button that allows you to subscribe anonymously to their RSS feed.