BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 13:36 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2004

The really simple future of the web

Tense, nervous headache? Try a new way to surf

E-mails coming out of your ears? No time to stop and read your favourite websites? Is the luxury of being able to "surf the web" just a distant memory?

An old idea, which could have ended up on the rubbish tip, might be just what is needed to help solve your problems.

Most people have never heard of this idea, let alone seen what it can do. But legions of techies, bloggers and website developers tend to get very excited about it, believing that it's the best way to keep in touch with the web. Some believe it could even spell doom for spam.

The idea - let's call it RSS - comes from a bit of work done in the 1990s at Netscape and elsewhere. The point of it was that key bits of websites, such as headlines, could be sent out in a bare form, stripped of all fancy graphics and layouts. These could then be incorporated easily into other websites.

So what is it about this idea which gets people so excited?

The most compelling use of RSS is that it lets users read dozens of websites, all on the same page. The sites can be scanned in seconds rather than having to be laboriously loaded individually.

How one RSS reader looks

Many sites and most weblogs now provide a feed of their content in RSS format. More are likely to join them as the audience grows.

A program (usually called a reader) collects a number of different sites' feeds chosen by the user, and displays them in much the same way as an e-mail inbox.

Typically one of these programs (dozens of which are available) will have a window listing all the sites the user has chosen. Top, for argument's sake, might be the BBC News Online Magazine. Other sites chosen will be listed below.

When a new story is published in the Magazine, the listing would be in bold, perhaps with a number in brackets indicating the number of new stories available - just as an inbox would indicate the number of unread e-mails.

RSS stands for 'Rich Site Summary'
It's often referred to as 'Really Simple Syndication'

The right-hand window of the reader would show a menu of stories currently in the Magazine index (headlines and first paragraphs). If the user cannot resist reading the full story, they would click on the headline and the full webpage would load.

The beauty of the system, apart from the speed of looking at many different sites, is that all the feeds are chosen by the user. No-one gets to set their agenda, and crucially no-one can intervene to send spam.

BBC News Online and our sister BBC Sport site have made available feeds to every part of our sites. There are about 100,000 people using the site in this way - a number which has been growing at 50% a month since the service was launched last year.

E-mail breakdown

James Crabtree, of think tank The Work Foundation, says there's growing belief in the technology community that e-mail is a system close to breakdown, thanks in part to spam, unread newsletters, and sheer weight of messages.

"E-mail is becoming a very big problem, and RSS is perhaps one of the ways out of it," he says.

It's just a really handy way of getting the information you want without having to surf around for it
James Crabtree

Danny O'Brien, co-editor of technology newsletter Need to Know, says there's scope for very specific information to be sent out. "It's really not hard to have your own personal RSS feed - you could suck in your appointments or latest news from your boss," he says.

"If you're a regular eBay shopper, you could set an RSS feed to keep an eye for bargains there; Amazon RSS lets you look for new books in your favourite category. Apple's iTunes Music Store has RSS feeds so that you can see what new albums are available, and so on."

James Crabtree says: "At the moment, not many people really know about using RSS. But if more people knew what it was, I think they would use it. It's just a really handy way of getting the information you want without having to surf around for it."

So how to go about it?

There is a range of different RSS readers available, some of them for free (click the Google link on the right for more details). Mac users currently seem to have the edge in easy-to-use programs, but there are many for PCs too. There are also websites which will do the same job as a reader without the need for a download.

There is a step-by-step guide to using RSS on this page -Using RSS

Otherwise look for the words "RSS Version" on the bottom line of any index page within the site, and click it for full instructions.

Below is a selection of your comments.

RSS is rapidly becoming indispensible. How about RSS feeds for the BBC's TV and radio listings?
Richard Carter, UK

RSS - fantastic! Never heard of it 'till now, but it sounds brill, especially for slower connections - I don't want pictures and ads, just info.
Simon Timperley, UK

I'm a webdesigner, and I find people asking for RSS feeds more and more. Recently a client asked me to build news feeds into his website, including the BBC one. It would be good to see more feeds available, as they are easily turned into webpages and demand seems to be growing.
Flash Wilson, UK

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