Change is afoot in the world of Internet content. A decade or so, the web browser in the form of Mosaic was let loose on an unsuspecting world by Marc Andressen and his team at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Taken together with HTML, the markup language to describe content which had been specified a few years earlier by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, the browser dramatically changed the way we accessed information in the years to come. Today, much of what we read on a computer screen comes from computers in different parts of the world and we dont even think twice about it.
Right in the beginning, it wasnt so easy. We had to remember URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) of web pages we liked. Then, we started bookmarking these URLs in the browser. But we could only bookmark so many. The web was growing too fast. Yahoo came along to create a directory which organised sites in hierarchical categories. Next came search engines like Altavista, Webcrawler, Lycos and Excite which created a gigantic database of the web pages, and allowed us to search by keyword across these pages.
And then came Google, which took search to the next level by making the results more relevant. It did so through a concept called PageRank, which looks at the importance of a page by analysing which other pages link to it. Google did something very interesting it no longer became important to remember URLs or even bookmark pages. If it was out there, Google could find it for us. In effect, Google has become our other memory.
But there are still limitations. While Google is excellent for delivering results of relevant web pages, it is only still good as the search words that we specify. New and useful sites will still find it hard to show up in the top results until they get linked from other sites. Besides, Googles search does not cover sites which need subscription or registration like those of Wall Street Journal and the New York Time.
Two recent developments are doing a lot to make the ocean of content out on the web easier to find. The first is RSS (Rich Site Summary) an XML feed akin to a Whats New page published by websites. The XML means that it can be read by news readers, which can therefore pull in the recent updates from sites whose feeds we subscribe to. Think of RSS as a format that makes content syndication easy. The second is weblogs, which are making the web two-way. Weblogs are making it easy for individuals and groups to publish content, in effect showcasing their expertise and opinions. Think of weblogs as people filtering web content.
RSS and Blogs herald an era of microcontent and nano-publishing. Taken together with the spiraling growth of connected devices like cellphones and wireless PDAs which call for reformatting of content for display on their small screens, how information is accessed and consumed is about to change again.
Tomorrow: RSS and News Readers