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TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Building Blocks: RSS

May 19th, 2003 · No Comments

It is all too easy to say that we should all become bloggers, setting up pages with links of stories that we like and which are relevant to our interests. How do we enable this without getting totally consumed by the time it would take to do this? This is where the second ecosystem comes in: this one is built around RSS.

RSS (Rich Site Summary) is an XML file format, with a standardised way to represent a story, so that a software program can easily identify the title, description (or contents) and a link to it. The newer version of RSS also enables categories to be specified. Here is a sample example of an RSS feed for my weblog. What you will see is a lot of tags to make greater sense of it, do a View Source in your browser on the page, and then compare with the newest entries posted on the blog.

An RSS feed serves as the input to a special program called the RSS (or News) Aggregator (or Reader), which parses the feed into its constituent items for display. We can now navigate through these items without having to actually go visit the website to find out whats new on the site or blog. The News Reader works on the publish-subscribe principle content providers publish RSS feeds for their content, which can be subscribed to by users. There are various News Readers (some free, some paid for) which are available.

[A more elaborate discussion on RSS and its wider implications is available in one of my earlier Tech Talk series: RSS, Blogs and Beyond.]

This is where it gets interesting. Imagine if instead of setting up a separate program as a News Reader, the email client itself can work as one. It already has a three-pane view, with the left panel showing the folders, the right top showing the list of items, and the bottom right showing the item details. Each of the items will have a permalink which the user can click on to get to the site for additional details on the story.

A centralized service on the local network or a hosted service on the Internet can offer to fetch RSS feeds from subscribed sites and create emails out of the incoming feeds. There is one email for every item. These items are then sent into the users mailbox. This is ideally a separate mail account think of it as an RSS IMAP Mailbox. The user can then set up filters, if required, to manage the incoming feeds.

The use of the email client itself as the News Reader eliminates the need for the use of a separate program that needs to be downloaded and installed. Everyone knows how to use an email client, so no additional learning is required. This will make the use of RSS much more mass-market than it currently is. Of course, the drawback is that now, instead of the users computer working as the RSS Aggregator, a centralized service needs to do the same.

Tomorrow: Building Blocks: RSS (continued)


TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

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