So, I was talking with Karen today about blogs and feeds. I thought I would write up this post to refer anyone to who wants to know about feeds.
I used to keep a list of bookmarks of the many blogs and websites that I keep up with. Each day I would open them, one-by-one, and check out what was new. As this ever growing list of blogs and sites grew, this way of viewing them got harder to maintain without missing some info I would have liked to see.
Then I got into feeds. Almost all blogs and a lot of sites have a feed. It’s usually RSS or Atom – linked with little orange icon with an RSS, Atom or XML on it. It’s a simple way of syndicating information. It just serves up the data. It does not tell you how to display the data the way HTML does.You see, when you type in a URL in your browser, the web server on the other end sends back some HTML text. The HTML is markup code that tells your browser how the page should look. Put this picture here; put this text there and make it bold; make this bit of text a link to another site; show this Flash movie here; etc. Same with email. I’m an email message for you from this person; here is the message; this is when I was sent.
Feeds are simpler. A feed is markup that just describes the data. Not: Show this here, but: This is about x and it was published on x date and time and written by this person.The great thing about feeds is that you can use them any way you want. I use a lot of them in a program that is somewhere between email and a browser. I say: I’m interested in this site, so check the feed every, say hour or so, to see if there is anything new. Then it’s up to the application to figure out how to display this information to you – since the feed is just data.
I use FeedDemon, which displays the feeds the same way email looks. New, mark as read, etc. In FeedDemon you can group feeds together into categories – I have ‘Friends & Family’,‘Technology’, etc. Each feed is like its own Inbox in email, so I can scan through and see what’s new and by the topics see if I want to explore further.Other feed readers do things differently. Bloglines is a web-based reader that you view in a browser. NewsGator integrates with Outlook and displays the feed as if they really were email. There is even an application that will subscribe to feeds of music or video file sharing and download files based on keywords. I like The Simpsons, so it will check the feed and if there is a Simpsons episode available for download it will automatically download it. The possibilities are really endless because feeds have broken content out of just the browser or just email.
Back in 1999, I started playing with XML. XML is a simple way of describing data. Just like feeds. Feeds are just XML. Back in ’99, XML was hyped as the thing. It was going to enable interoperability between any platform that could read and produce text. It has not been until now, 2004, that I have seen XML really start to affect the average internet user. Sure, I’ve used it to solve all sorts of problems throughout the years; but I’m a programmer. I see XML feeds as the beginning of XML actually affecting average folks.
The thing that makes XML feeds high-tech and able to affect average folks is that they are simple. An email message is just that – an email. You need an email application to read it. A web page is a web page. An XML feed does not say what it is supposed to be. It’s just an abstract concept. Like numbers. And look what you can do with numbers – anything.