Issue #5 March 2005

RSS: News when you want it

What is RSS?

RSS is a family of XML formats used by websites to syndicate their content. The term stands for Really Simple Syndication, RDF Site Summary, or Rich Site Summary depending on the version. This family contains various formats which vary in their mode of execution, and the formats are all slightly incompatible with each other.

Note:
Touted as the next generation in syndication formats, Atom attempts to standardize the various versions of RSS and allow syndicators to do things they could not previously do. Atom is not RSS and there are people who will take offense when this article includes Atom when referring to RSS. Their functionality to the end user (i.e. me) is so similar as to be identical. It is worth noting that Atom is the newest format and is not as universally supported as the previous versions. This lag will no doubt be corrected in the near future.

How it works

Although RSS has been around for years, it is only within the last few years that the news feed phenomena has exploded. With the abundance of easy-to-use syndicating software, everyone is creating their own feeds. And with news sites jumping on to the RSS bandwagon, most websites that update on a semi-regular basis now contain news feeds.

When a website decides to create a news feed, it puts its contents into a file in the RSS format. The newest articles are always placed at the top, and over time, older articles are culled from the bottom. This file sits on the web server waiting for a news aggregator to look for it.

When a news aggregator looks at a feed for the first time, it downloads the file and reads all the articles. The next time it checks the news feed, it knows what articles it has already read and only displays what is new.

Even though there are multiple versions of RSS, it often does not matter to the casual user what version is being used as most news aggregators have covered their bases and supported all variants.

Examples of use

It seems like every website is syndicating its feed nowadays. On an average day, I check the following types of sites at least once:

The great thing about all these sites is that they all have news feeds. Of course, to take advantage of these feeds, we need a news aggregator.

Server side aggregators

Not all aggregators are for personal use. Server side aggregators are used to combine news feeds from different sources on the same topic. Examples of server side aggregators include Fedora People and Planet GNOME. Of course, these websites also syndicate their own feeds from these aggregated feeds, allowing you, in essence, to easily syndicate all those websites with just one feed.

It's all about the tools

News aggregators come in many shapes and sizes. They run the gamut from simple streamlined ones that barely point to the articles and the flashy ones with lots of bells and whistles. This article includes a few of the more prominent ones.

Firefox

Since RSS feeds are primarily affiliated with websites, it makes sense to read these feeds with your web browser. Firefox can aggregate the feeds for you with both their Live Bookmarks feature or the Sage plug-in.

Live Bookmarks

The Live Bookmarks feature is built into Firefox. When you go to a web page such as the magazine homepage as shown in Figure 1, Firefox finds an RSS feed, Firefox attempts to find an affiliated RSS feed. If it is successful, Firefox shows a little orange icon in the bottom right corner.

Firefox finds an RSS feed
Figure 1. Firefox finds an RSS feed

To add this feed to your Live Bookmarks, click on this orange icon and a menu appears directly above with Subscribe to RSS and/or Subscribe to Atom depending on what is available. Select the option that is there, or, if both are available, the one you prefer. A window appears allowing you to select where to file this Live Bookmark in your Bookmarks folder. Select the Add button and you have a new Live Bookmark.

Sometimes, Firefox is unable to find any affiliated feeds. In such cases, the URL needs to be added manually. Select Bookmarks -> Manage Bookmarks. A window called Bookmark Manager appears. In this window, select File -> New Live Bookmark. Enter the name and the associated URL (it should have a .rss, .rdf or .xml extension) in the available text entries and click OK. The Live Bookmark has been added.

To access the articles from this new Live Bookmark, select the link you made in the Bookmarks menu. The list of articles are displayed. Selecting an article takes you to that page. The bookmarks sidebar can also be activated from the menu by selecting View -> Sidebar -> Bookmarks. In essence, Live Bookmarks work just like normal bookmarks, except they change on their own when new articles are added.

Although convenient, Firefox's Live Bookmarks do not have many features that other news aggregators do. Most notably, it does not have search capability, give you the dates of the articles, or note which articles you have seen before. There is a Firefox plug-in named Sage that fills in most of these gaps.

Sage

Although Firefox does not come with Sage installed by default, adding it is a very easy task. Install Sage from the Mozilla FTP site, and restart Firefox to complete the installation.

Once Firefox has restarted, select View -> Sidebar -> Sage to show the Sage panel. Feeds can be added to Sage by selecting the magnifying glass above the feed options in the sidebar when visiting the associated webpage such as the magazine homepage. Once a feed is added, selecting it shows both the list of available articles in the bottom pane, and summaries of these articles on the main browser pane as shown in Figure 2, Running Sage. Unread articles are listed in bold while websites with a new article since your last visit have the splashy red icon.

Running Sage
Figure 2. Running Sage

The button to the left of the find feed is the refresh button. Clicking on it makes Sage check the list of feeds for new articles.

The different feeds can be categorized by creating new folders in the Sage pane. To create a new folder, right-click in this pane and select New Folder. Feeds can then be dragged into the folder.

Konqueror and aKregator

KDE 3.4 will contain aKregator, an RSS reader associated with Konqueror, the KDE web browser. Features include automatic retrievals, search, and categories for feeds. However, at the time of writing, KDE 3.4 has not been released, and signed, stable packages are unavailable.

Liferea

Liferea, short for Linux Feed Reader, has the most features of the readers mentioned in this article. To install Liferea on to your computer, first get the appropriate package from dag.wieers.com. Install this RPM in the way most appropriate for your system.

Once installed, Liferea can be found in the Main Menu under Internet. Starting this application brings up the Liferea window as shown in Figure 3, Running Liferea. Liferea comes installed with some example feeds.

Running Liferea
Figure 3. Running Liferea

Adding new feeds to Liferea is a bit more complicated than in the previous aggregators. There is no button that searches affiliated feeds for you. To subscribe to a new feed, select New Feed and enter the appropriate URL in the Source line. For example, enter the URL http://www.redhat.com/magazine/rss20.xml for the Red Hat Magazine feed. You can also cut and paste links from any RSS button or link that says something like Syndicate this site. Click OK and Liferea attempts to find this feed. If it is not successful, a feed called New subscription appears. This feed is a broken link and needs to be deleted. However, if Liferea finds the feed, a window with options appears as shown in Figure 4, Adding a new subscription. The default options work very well, so just click OK and the subscription to the feed is established.

Adding a new subscription
Figure 4. Adding a new subscription

An easier way to add subscriptions does exist, but it requires a bit of dexterity with the mouse. If you have the website open in a web browser, you can subscribe to the feed by dragging the link into Liferea and dropping it into the feed listing. Figure 4, Adding a new subscription appears, and clicking OK creates the subscription.

Although it may seem a bit unwieldy, Liferea makes up for this by including a lot of useful features. This feature list includes:

Number of unread articles
If a news feed contains articles that have not been read, Liferea prints the feed in bold and has the number of unread articles listed in parentheses immediately to the right.
Categories
Categories in Liferea work just like they do in Sage. To create a new category, right-click in the pane on the left and select New -> New Folder. Feeds can be dragged into the newly created folder and new subscriptions can be created by clicking New Feed while the new folder is selected.
Search
Liferea has a simple case-sensitive searching capability. If the Search box is not show, click Search and it appears beneath the toolbar and above the article pane. Entering a word or phrase searches all your subscribed feeds for a match in either the title or content of an article.
Virtual Folders
The virtual folder, or vFolder, is similar to the vFolder in the Evolution mail client. The Unread and Important folders are the default vFolders in Liferea. To create a new vFolder, perform a search as shown Search. Click VFolder and the new vFolder is shown in the subscription list on the left.

Although Liferea does not have any official documentation, I found the Online Help feed that is automatically installed in the Liferea Help folder to contain enough information to answer my questions.

Internet aggregators

There are currently many news aggregators available on the Internet. The main advantage to using an online aggregator is the ability to have your subscriptions and all your settings available at multiple computers. A listing of available aggregators on the Internet is available online from Wikipedia. Note that some of them are free while others require payment. Some of the free ones seem to be in their testing stages and may not be free in the future. The main disadvantage of using an Internet aggregator is that the company's policies may change or they may go out of business causing you to lose all your data.

I used MyYahoo as my first news aggregator. It is very simple and easy to use. My wish for more features soon led me to graduate to other aggregators. However, if all you want is a simple news aggregator and the advertisements do not bother you, it is not a bad option.

Feeding the need...for feeds

Now that you have found a news aggregator you like, chances are you want to find some news feeds to suit your interests. Fortunately, there are websites dedicated to finding and sorting through various news feeds on the Internet. Such sites include:

  • syndic8—news feeds are grouped by category; can also search by keyword
  • Findfeeder—search by keyword or URL
  • News Is Free—an online aggregator that allows searches for feeds

Now that you have an aggregator and an abundance of feeds, all you need is a good cup of tea and you can just sit back and read all your news quickly, which lets you read more feeds in the same amount of time. Happy reading.

Further reading

About the author

Rosanna Yuen is an avid computer user who often finds herself surrounded by computer programmers. She co-wrote AisleRiot and is a dabbler in the GNOME project. In her spare time, she reads, knits, and experiments in her kitchen.