January 29th, 2005


____________________[PRO] RSS - simple step to a revolution in information

GraphicSometimes, a simple little technology comes along that has unexpected effects. It may seem modest in itself, but the uses to which it can be put turn it into something altogether more ground-breaking.

RSS looks like being just such a technology. A favourite tool in the blogging world for some time, it has more recently been adopted by mainstream media companies as a way to distribute their products over the internet.

Some of the technology industry's bigger thinkers - including Bill Gates, who last year threw his weight behind the technology - are now engaged in trying to use RSS to help re-engineer refashion a much wider swathe of online activity.

"It's one of those potentially transformative technologies - people are going to use it in all sorts of ways to simplify the process of getting and using information, and entrepreneurs to create new kinds of information products and services," says Dan Gillmor, a Silicon Valley author who has set out to create a business around new online tools such as RSS.

RSS - which stands for "really simple syndication" - is a standard format that anyone publishing information on the web can use to make their data available. Information formatted in this way is called a "feed".

Consumers armed with software known either as a "feed reader" or an "aggregator" can set up and filter their own selection of internet feeds. Some of these aggregators, such as Bloglines and NewsGator, are available as free online services. Others, such as NetNewsWire, are pieces of software that are downloaded on to a user's computer.

As a way to find information on the internet, RSS has two big advantages. One is that information from many different websites is collected in one place, saving the effort of surfing from a browser using multiple bookmarks. The other is the ability of the feed readers to sift information from different websites before extracting what the consumer wants to see.

Today's simple readers still perform only rudimentary tasks - for instance, the software might highlight all the new information that has been posted to a site since it was last checked. Tomorrow's more sophisticated software may be able to draw on user preferences to find and filter information from the web.

For online publishers, this is already becoming of more than academic interest. The Pew Internet and American Life Project, which monitors internet behaviour, estimated this month that 6m Americans now receive information through RSS aggregators. The effects could be far-reaching.

RSS is "doing what the internet does - it eliminates the middleman," says Larry Kramer, founder of MarketWatch, an online financial news service that was acquired this month by Dow Jones. In other words, when the guts of a company's website have been laid bare by RSS, there is no longer any need to navigate around the site to find information.

Starting from an RSS aggregator, "people click through to stories, but maybe they don't go to [home pages] as much as they did," says Shelby Bonnie, head of CNET Networks, which runs a family of technology information sites.

One result of aggregating information from multiple sources in one place is that only the truly original will draw the readers' attention, Mr Bonnie adds. "You could say this is a technology that commoditises content," he says.

While the most immediate effects will be seen in the online media business, some companies are already starting to use R SS aggregators to monitor references to their products on influential blog sites, says Mr Gillmor. "It's a brand management tool of some power," he adds.

Combined with other technologies, it could have a much broader impact on how people filter information from the web. MSN, Microsoft's internet service, has experimented with combining RSS with its new internet search engine, says Adam Sohn, marketing director. "You can put a search together, then be notified via RSS when there's a change - that's an early, rudimentary step towards personalisation" of web searching, he says.

Such experimentation could point to big changes ahead in how online information is distributed. "The content delivery mechanism on the web is still new," says Mr Kramer. "Nobody's got the textbook on it yet."

Simple steps to a revolution in information, by Richard Waters, FT January 27 2005