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Last Updated: Monday, 11 April, 2005, 07:02 GMT 08:02 UK
Turning the web into 'sushi belts'
By Jo Twist
BBC News science and technology reporter

Sushi conveyor belt
Like sushi, RSS lets people pick and choose
The way people find websites, blogs, and other content they like on the net is changing.

While the majority still seek out sites of interest through search engines and keep addresses bookmarked, others increasingly use "RSS" feeds.

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. It is a way of keeping automatically aware of website updates.

Like sushi restaurant conveyor belts, it delivers content to people so they can easily pick what they want to read.

Millions of news, weblogs, and ordinary websites carry easy-to-set-up RSS feeds which alert people when a site has been updated.

Keen lovers of technology and the web have been using RSS for some time as a way to wade through the millions of pages on the web.

It is now starting to come out of its niche; and the small, orange badges which indicate a feed is available on a site are becoming a familiar presence.

But many people who use the web fairly regularly will still stare blankly when asked whether they use RSS.

Next step

Portals like BT Yahoo broadband are starting to push and explain it, to get more people using it. BT sees it as the next step in customisation.

Dave Winer, co-inventor of the RSS format, describes it in three simple words - automated web surfing.

"If you find there is a regular pattern to the way you look at websites, and imagine a computer could do some of that work for you, that is what RSS does for you," he explained to the BBC News website.

We are still waiting for the killer app though. We are still waiting for someone to produce the software that will switch the lightbulb on for people
Dave Winer
"I am reading a website so often, I just want the website to tell me when something new is there."

His feeds include weather updates from everywhere he has lived in the last five years, to Netflix feeds which alert him to new DVD releases, and a lot of other blogs or websites on which he wants to keep tabs.

"The information we expect today is much greater than what we had in the past. RSS makes it possible for information to flow to you," according to Mr Winer.

Free programs available on the net collect all the RSS feeds which users want. They essentially let users read dozens of websites, all on the same page.

And some net browsers - such as Firefox and Opera - let users add feeds that can be viewed inside the one program, without having to open a separate window.

"With the aggregator [reader] I use, it's like sitting on a riverbank and watching the water go by.

"On that water are little paper boards floating by. If I see something I am interested in, I click on it.

"It is very easy for me to scan with my eyes. Using a computer has trained me to do that better," he explained.

Rivers and boats

Net service providers and web portals, like BT Yahoo, are also realising its potential and are making RSS an integral part of how the portals work.

BT Yahoo's portal for its net customers has used RSS before, but it was not made explicit to people.

As part of a revamp last month, it makes it clearly accessible for all, with a button to "add content".

But a big issue has been about how to explain what RSS can do to change a person's web surfing experience, and also how to avoid bamboozling people with strange-looking code and acronyms.

BT Yahoo broadband portal
BT Yahoo says it is the first net service provider to use RSS on its portal
"Our industry is brilliant at coming up with these ridiculous acronyms, and we are rapidly getting to the same place with RSS," Jo Baxter, general manager of BT Openworld online services, told the BBC News website.

"We always have an explanation for customers in terms of what it can offer them.

"What we are constantly looking to do with the browser is create a place where people can get all the relevant information they want in one hit."

In the first few days after the overhauled portal was launched, 20,000 people used the "add content" button.

'Like skiing'

Although there are many different readers available, Mr Winer thinks there is an opportunity for news organisations and other content providers to provide their own readers for people to personalise the web.

Some are moving that way already, with most major news sites offering feeds. The LA Times, and the UK's Guardian are already offering their own branded RSS reader programs.

For now, however, Mr Winer sees RSS as a development for the web which is a revolution that is not disruptive. It levels the playing field for all kinds of content producers to get what they produce out into the world.

Bloglines news reader grab
News readers collect all your feeds and display the updates on the same page
But he is not sure it needs to be a "mass market thing" just yet.

"It's like skiing. As popular as it is, probably less than 5% of people do it. Imagine if everyone did it, it would be scary," he thinks.

But as technology and media companies start to use RSS more explicitly, encouraging readers to use the feeds to stay updated, it will most likely go that way.

"We are still waiting for the killer app though. We are still waiting for someone to produce the software that will switch the lightbulb on for people."

It could be that news providers are in the best position to produce that "killer app" for people.

They have a chance of understanding news, but technology companies do not, says Mr Winer.

It may be that people just do not want to be updated every minute of every day when there is something new to read. That could lead to information overload.

Mr Winer does not think so: "It redefines information overload and moves the bar higher."

"Now it takes more information for you to be overloaded. It just means you can consume 100 times more before you go crazy."

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