Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Cracking RSS feeds with a sledgehammer

The way we stay up to date with our favourite web sites has evolved over the years. First there was spontaneous surfing, then came email newsletters, while today we have much more versatile RSS feeds. Whether you fall into the 'Rich Site Summary' or 'Really Simple Syndication' camp, RSS stands for super-efficient information delivery, when, where and how you want it.

Ironically software developers have taken this nimble content filtering system and made it overly complicated and cumbersome by urging people to engage it through specialised news aggregation clients. What on earth were they thinking? You wouldn't fire up web browser X expressly to perform Google searches and then switch to web browser Y solely to check out eBay, so why book yourself in for a logic bypass before embracing RSS feeds? Installing an extra piece of clunky software to access readily available, web-based information is commensurate with loading your fully-functional car onto a transport carrier and driving the hulking menagerie to the corner shop to pick up a bottle of milk.
Thankfully the whole world hasn't gone insane. Rmail takes this beautifully simple information-gathering technique and keeps it simple by allowing you to subscribe to RSS feeds and receive the updates via email. You don't even need to register to take advantage of the service; enter your email address and the web feed of the site you wish to track and you're good to go. No bloat, no fuss and it's 100% free.

I've been using Rmail for several months now and couldn't imagine going back to trawling my regular online haunts for changes. It's had the most marked impact on the way I monitor Digg for new tech stories. Whereas I used to load up the Digg home page and open all the stories I was interested in reading in a new tab until I'd caught up with my previous session, I now let the geekery come to my doorstep.

The title and description of each story to hit the front page is emailed to me as an individual message. Gmail tags them with the 'Digg' label and they are immediately archived to keep them separate from my more personal correspondence. When I've got time to catch up, I click on the 'Digg' text link in the sidebar and read the stories sequentially. I always know where I left off because I delete the email associated with each story after I've read it - perfect for those occasions when you can only spare 10 minutes at one sitting. It makes a heck of a lot more sense than lining up 40 tabbed articles and hoping that Firefox doesn't crash before you have chance to absorb them all (something it's been doing a lot since I 'upgraded' to version 1.5). You'd think Session Saver would help, but on many occasions it seems to develop an impromptu case of goldfish memory syndrome leaving you high and dry.

If you've got your own blog, it's also possible - by inserting a short snippet of HTML code - to offer visitors the means to track your latest ramblings via Rmail without leaving your site. Seeing as you aren't required to know anything about RSS feeds to subscribe to them in this way, even the technically challenged will be able to keep up to speed.

Don't roll your doe eyes at me Yet Another RSS Aggregator/Client/Reader/Grabber/Organiser/Widget; your days are numbered.