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RSS—Spread the word There’s this thing called the Internet out there—and it’s way too big for any one person. RSS can help you chop it down to size.

The Internet is a wonderful resource for research. Without belaboring the obvious, I know people (myself included) who have written books using nothing but data pulled off the Net. Our research strategy was simple--use Google to find any URL that dealt with the book's subject, bookmark it, peruse headlines of articles listed on the site, and download and read those that were relevant. Then revisit the bookmarked sites periodically for about a year. Monitoring portals, vendor and association sites and so on like this is an arduous, ad hoc process and, given the spacey state of one's brain after spending all day on the Net, mistake-prone too. I should have known better. Now I tap into syndicated content that is automatically sent to me as it is updated. I've made nice with RSS.

RSS alternately stands for Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary and RDF Site Summary. It's a data format based on the XML 1.0 specification published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, w3.org) that lets content providers syndicate a list of content items available on a Web site to other Web sites. To publish RSS feeds, distributors create RSS files on their Web servers by using fairly simple programs--the RSS file contains placeholders for data, which are identified by starting and ending tags.

Each item in a feed is described in XML by a few attributes such as title, date, author and content summary, and consumers of the content typically peruse the content descriptions to see which entries they want to read. They then use any number of RSS readers--which resemble e-mail clients--to access the complete version of the content on its original Web site. To maximize their content distribution, Web sites register their RSS feeds with multiple readers, and to maximize the content they receive, content consumers use their readers to register multiple Web sites from which they want to receive feeds. So with RSS, providers get a wider audience and consumers can track more content with almost no effort at all once they register their feeds.

RSS has been around for awhile, so there are also sites that aggregate feeds from multiple sources for the consumer and to which consumers can go to sign up for feeds.

Major uses of RSS

RSS was first implemented by publishers and media companies to syndicate news feeds. Companies like the New York Times, Reuters News Service, The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor publish news feeds categorized by subject matter like Arts, Health, Sports, Computers and Science. Most are free because they expand the publications' readership and drive sales of their print publications. Using an RSS reader, consumers simply go the company's RSS feed page, click on the XML button next to the feeds they want and follow the instructions. To try the Washington Post, for instance, go to Washington Post.

These RSS services evolved out of portal-based RSS content. According to Gartner's research note, "RSS Is a Case Study in Unintended Consequences," in the late 1990s, RSS originally was used to aggregate headlines from major news outlets like the New York Times into popular portals like Alta Vista where users would click on those links to go to the publisher's site. That made the portal's content richer and a better draw for users and, therefore, advertisers.

The advent of Weblogs (blogs) launched another phenomenon. Whereas big publishers disseminated their links into portals numbered in the hundreds, and sites aggregating them were relatively few, the Gartner report says that with blogs, RSS has flourished as a mechanism for personal blogs to syndicate their own content into other blogs and vice versa. Unlike big media companies, which have remained constant in number, blogs have exploded in the last few years to now number about 6 million--half of which feature RSS feeds, says Ray Valdes, research director of Internet platforms and Web services at Gartner. (Imagine routinely visiting just a hundred of those manually.)

That has led many users to adopt their own blogs as their primary experience of the Internet. Rather than regularly navigating sites bookmarked with their online service, bloggers just scan their RSS feeds from other blogs and Web sites with RSS readers. According to the Gartner report, more sophisticated Internet users are looking for "additional detail, context, immediacy and interpretation" in the news they get from the Net and without annoying distractions like pop-ups, spyware and spam. Blogs with RSS are just the thing--they personalize the Net for the user in a way that not even a portal can. Their only drawback is that the information might not be presented with the same compelling visuals as it would be on a Web page.

Most RSS readers are free and most RSS feeds can be subscribed to for free, so the discussion will also be free--of product-oriented editorial. Gartner maintains, however, that this will not remain the case for long--though readers will likely not go commercial, vendors of Web publishing software and collaboration systems like portals and content management will incorporate RSS support into their products by the end of 2006.

The future of RSS

Between now and 2006, RSS will undergo a fundamental transformation--data will be both syndicated and consumed automatically by software programs. As examples of automatic syndication, the Gartner report explains that "a credit card company could provide an RSS feed describing the last 10 transactions on a card for users who want to monitor accounts for identity theft, [or] an enterprise resource planning application could provide highlights of inventory data to authorized users via an RSS feed." Those are functions that are done less efficiently by means of e-mail now. On the other hand, Gartner feels feeds will be consumed by revolutionary content aggregation and data mining systems. Indeed, by 2006, Gartner maintains, application-generated RSS data will be double the RSS data that's humanly produced.

The implications of RSS for KM

At this point, according to Valdes, unlike e-mail, RSS feeds aren't secure or fully reliable, and they can't be acknowledged by the recipients. But he feels--as do the millions using RSS--that RSS' benefits more than compensate for those shortcomings. It's simple and lightweight, so it's easy to get up and running and add to systems producing content. Also, readers are legion, many are open source so they're free, and no one has claimed copyright on the technology. Due to its serendipitous evolution through several versions, some of which were developed by competing factions, RSS in its present form, generally known as Version 2, may lack certain features that users desire. But it's proven technology--the efficacy of which is undeniable. Valdes says those attributes will drive widespread RSS adoption in years to come.

So look for RSS to soon become a standard feature of KM. It will nicely complement simple communication tools like e-mail, instant messaging and chat, as well as file sharing and other data dissemination tools now featured in collaboration suites. Distributing feeds to communities and autocategorizing feed information in taxonomies will likely become standard features also. Of course, RSS has long been available functionality for many Internet portals--enterprise portals will adopt it for similar purposes.

But why wait for KM to catch up with RSS? Most of us in this industry suffer from serious data lust. Armed only with search engines, though, too often we experience the Internet as an information wilderness. With a little upfront code work and the thousands of RSS feeds available, now you can tame more of the Net than ever before.

John Harney is president of ASPWatch, a cnsultancy focusing on market, partner and technology strategy for ASPs, e-mail johnharney4@msn.com.

Manufacturer uses RSS to distribute regular reports

Though there are few products on the market that incorporate RSS technology for use inside the enterprise, certain early adopters are using those that do exist in imaginative ways for data dissemination within their organizations. Rimex , headquartered in Surrey, British Columbia, is an international manufacturer of giant wheels and rims for mining, forestry and industrial equipment. Darren Kennedy, IT manager, used to extract data from his MAPICS SyteLine ERP system and then, using a report mining tool, analyze and assemble reports from it for multiple departments in Rimex like sales, accounting and manufacturing. Those might deal with sales performance, product inventory or accounts receivable aging reports that showed the amounts past due and by how many days for each account. He then distributed them to different departments via e-mail or sent them to printers where employees could print them out. That was an administrative process that contributed nothing to the company's bottom line but wasted almost a full day of Kennedy's time.

That changed in August 2004 when he installed the Monarch Data Pump V7 data extraction and the Monarch V7 Professional Edition report mining tools from DataWatch. Installation took a little over an hour and provided Rimex with RSS report syndication. Kennedy can now extract data from his ERP system, analyze it and manipulate it into any form of report and then distribute the reports as text files, Excel spreadsheets or print files that staff can print out. The revamped process now takes about 90 minutes.

The value of the system became glaringly evident, says Kennedy, when a goods and services tax (GST) monitor showed up unannounced at Rimex headquarters this fall requesting to see all tax records for the company since 2000. Apparently there was some confusion about Rimex conforming to GST requirements. "If I didn't produce the right reports quickly," Kennedy explains, "there probably would have been quite a scene with my CFO and the guy from GST." As it turned out, he ran the reports promptly and the parties resolved the problem amicably.

Rimex paid less then $9,000 for the whole solution ($7,995 for the Data Pump server and $765 for Professional Edition), and Kennedy says the system easily paid for itself in a few months because it saved him so much time. Now he's evaluating ways to possibly adopt RSS readers as the interface employees will use to access the syndicated reports.

Some helpful RSS Web sites

Lights.com/weblogs/rss.html--Weblogs Compendium's comprehensive list of RSS and other readers

Make-rss-feeds.com--A service that provides a step-by-step tutorial on how to create an RSS feed

Syndic8.com and 2rss.com--RSS feed aggregation Web sites (the first with almost 4,500 feeds and the second with more than 7,900 feeds), both of which deal with all types of topics and conveniently categorize the feeds by the type of content they offer

Rss-specifications.com--The RSS Specifications Web site about, among other things, the various versions of RSS (there are four extant, and some RSS readers work with one and not the others)

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