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All the news that's fit to RSS

Gearhead archive

"A news report brought to you here on the Sub-Etha waveband, broadcasting around the galaxy, around the clock. We'll be saying a big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together guys . . . ."
- From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Getting our news fix is tough. We have ongoing quest for new sources of news and better methods of mining those sources. Others obviously must feel the same, as there is now a standard for news syndication called Rich Site Summary (RSS) that has achieved remarkable acceptance (as determined by the number of organizations using it).

RSS, also called RDF Site Summary, is an XML-based format that lets Web sites describe and syndicate site content. Actually, according to one of the main culprits in the development of RSS, the infamous Dave Winer of UserLand, "There is no consensus on what RSS stands for, so it's not an acronym, it's a name."

"Ah," you may well be saying, "what was that RDF thing?" Good question.

RDF stands for Resource Description Framework, a framework for the description and interchange of metadata concerning just about anything that has a uniform resource identifier, or URI. URIs include uniform resource locators (URLs), such as http: and FTP:, and uniform resource names (URNs). The following is from the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) "Index of Terms:"

Uniform Resource Identifier - 1) a compact string of characters for identifying an abstract or physical resource (see RFC 2396, "Uniform Resource Identifiers"). 2) as defined in RFC 1630, "Universal Resource Identifiers in WWW: A Unifying Syntax for the Expression of Names and Addresses of Objects on the Network as used in the World Wide Web" . . . aka anchor address. See also Addressing Overview.

Another article worth reading is Tim Bray's "What is RDF?," an excellent discussion of the whys and wherefores of RDF.

Anyway, in 1999, Netscape released a format for adding news channels to its portal My.Netscape.Com - this was RSS 0.9, which was based on RDF.

There followed a reasonably complex history of which we will hit the highlights: Netscape later abandoned RSS development, and in April 2000, UserLand got involved in the development with a revision of the specification that cleaned up all the Netscape eccentricities and generally made it more useful.

It wasn't until December 2000 that RSS started moving down a formal standards track with the formation of an RSS-DEV working group. See DocFinder: 8233 for a summary of the RSS timeline.

The complex history has resulted in multiple versions of the standard being deployed. You will find RSS 0.9, 0.91, 0.92, 0.93 and 1.0 in the field (apparently RSS 0.9 and 0.91 are the most popular). Today, the W3C standard is RSS 1.0.

So, what does RSS do for news? Well, according to the O'Reilly Network, it is a "specification used for distributing Opinion product announcements, discussion threads, and other assorted content as channels."

And rather than getting deeply into how RSS files are specified, we refer you to the discussion at DocFinder: 8233 and the actual W3C RSS 1.0 specification (DocFinder: 8234).

About this time, you must be wondering how RSS is actually deployed. First, a Web site that wants to distribute its content (that is, be a publisher) creates an RSS specification of what it has to offer. That file is usually located in the root of your Web site but you can put it anywhere you please. Indeed, a single site could have multiple RSS specification scattered throughout its structure.

The next step is to register with an RSS directory - see ASPRSS Directories, (http://asprss.com/Directories.asp), UserLand, XMLTree, NewsIsFree and GrokSoup.

Note that anyone can publish anything, so you'll find many fabulously self-indulgent Web logs among the more useful news sources. Then again, everyone has to start somewhere with banging the rocks together . . . .

Next week, a cool utility for accessing news sources via RSS. Your news to gearhead@gibbs.com.

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