In relation to RSS there are currently two types of
1) the person who uses it all the time and
2) the person who can’t figure out what those
orange buttons are anyhow…
That’s all about to change. When Microsoft starts
integrating RSS in its applications - particularly Internet
Explorer - RSS will finally emerge out of the dark realms
of geekdom and into the bright daylight of the world
MS & RSS - Better Late Than Never
Microsoft has been slow to respond to the emergence
of RSS. However, it seems that they have finally got
the religion and are all set to evangelise it with a
proselytizing fervour. Internet Explorer 7 will automatically
sniff out RSS 2.0 feeds on web pages. A web feed button
in IE will ‘light up’ when it finds a feed.
Microsoft say they’ll be adding a similar feature
to sniff out Atom feeds in a later release of IE.
Moreover, Microsoft is also building support for RSS
into the next version of its operating system, Windows
Vista (‘Longhorn’) due for release towards
the end of 2006. There will be some RSS APIs to allow
application developers to find feeds and extract information
programmatically so that a variety of types of program
(such as email readers or appointments schedulers) will
be able to interrogate RSS feeds. While this may sound
like a good idea in principle, some people are concerned
that Microsoft might be planning to subvert the RSS standard
for its own nefarious purposes. In the past Microsoft
has ‘adapted’ existing languages and technologies
already stated that it will be adding some new features
to RSS 2.0.
However, you don’t need to wait for Microsoft
to get its act together. RSS and Atom feeds are all over
the place at this very moment and there are plenty of
tools available for finding and reading them. I’ve
taken a close look at a few alternatives below…
FeedReader has a straightforward interface: a categorised
tree of feeds at the left, feed headlines (items) at
the top right and the text or web page in the pane below.
Here an alert has popped up to tell me that a new item
FeedReader is a simple, straightforward and effective
RSS and Atom reader. It can also import and export OPML
(Outline Processor Markup language - an XML format which
specialises in hierarchical information). OPML is not
as widely used as some formats and it tends to pop up
most frequently on more technically aware sites - for
example, Borland uses it as one way of grouping team
You subscribe to an RSS feed by copying and pasting
its URL into a field in a dialog box. FeedReader then
adds the feed to a tree-structured list in one of its
windows. You can’t add feeds by dragging them directly
from a web page and dropping then into FeedReader, which
is a pity. Feeds can be grouped beneath user-defined
categories. The frequency of feed updates can be set
as a default and adjusted for specific feeds so that,
for example, most feeds are updated hourly but the BBC
and CNN newsfeeds are updated every ten minutes. When
new items arrive, an alert pops up from the Windows Taskbar
and you can click an item to view it in FeedReader (alerts
can be disabled if you don’t like them).
Item headers are shown in a pane at the top right and
the text of the item is shown in a pane beneath. Double-clicking
an item header causes the associated web page to appear
in the bottom pane.
can alter properties globally for all feeds as well as
individually for specific feeds. Here, for example, I
am picking a ‘refresh interval’ for a feed.
One of the deficiencies of FeedReader
is its help system (there isn’t one) and documentation
(online and sparse). It also lacks easy customisation.
While a number of its features can be customised - including
its icon, splash screen and menus - this is not straightforward.
So while it’s generally a capable and easy-to-use
application, it still has that distinctive ‘under
development’ feel to it.
FeedReader is written in Delphi Object Pascal and its
source code is freely available under the GNU General
Supports: RSS and Atom
Platform: Windows .NET
SharpReader 'cross references'
some items (or lets you view them 'in a threaded fashion').
For example, here an entry about the Rants and Raves
column in the Bitwise feed; it links to a sub-item which
has been found in the separate RSS feed on the
Rants and Raves site itself.
The user interface of SharpReader is broadly similar
to the interface of FeedReader. Feeds are displayed in
a categorised tree at the left with item headers shown
to the right and item text show below. Double-clicking
the item header causes the associated web page to replace
the item text.
The item headers have an additional trick. They show
linked items from other feeds in the form of nested sub-headings,
like sub-branches in a collapsible outliner. This is
the author’s description: “Advanced threading
support [allows] you to view connected items together
in a threaded fashion. SharpReader detects and shows
connections between items if they have same link, if
one item links to another, if two items both link to
the same external webpage, or if an item has comments
(for feeds supporting the <wfw:commentrss> standard).”
To take a concrete example of this, if the Bitwise
feed has a link to the Rants and Raves site and this
itself has a feed, then the matching item in the Rants
and Raves feed (this month’s column) will be shown
as a subheading of the Bitwise feed. Personally, I must
say that I often find the threaded view to be quite confusing.
Frequently when I click a sub item I end up at a page
which has no obvious connection with the item I was originally
SharpReader has a Properties
panel (bottom left) which makes it easy to alter features
such as the refresh interval of the selected feed
Properties for each individual feed, such as the maximum
time to display unread items and the refresh interval,
can be set in a Properties panel (similar to the one
used by Microsoft’s Visual Studio). As in FeedReader,
alerts pop up from the Windows toolbar when new feed
items are detected. One feature which sets it apart from
FeedReader is its ability to add feeds by dragging them
off a web page and dropping them straight into SharpReader
in order to subscribe automatically. It can also import
and export OPML. Note that SharpReader requires the .NET
framework 1.1 SP1.
Supports: RSS and Atom
Free (or $25/$45 for Advanced and Professional
Awasu is a well organised,
good-looking reader. Notice the bottom-tabs which provide
a simple way of displaying multiple feeds on separate
I thought I’d seen everything there was to see
in a feed reader. Then I loaded Awasu. The first thing
that struck me was, quite simply, how good it looks.
This is the only reader I’ve used that seems to
have a real pride in its appearance. From its dockable
toolbars to its 3D shading and gradient-fill tabs, Awasu
clearly has a sense of style.
It’s not all surface gloss, however. Purely in
terms of its functionality, this is a good program. You
can view multiple feeds, or web pages in tabbed, tiled
or cascading windows. If you want to save links to visit
later, you can add them to a ‘read me’ list
in a small pane. It has a useful reporting tool which
can create pages of links and item information to be
viewed on screen, saved to disk or printed. For example,
you could create a report of all the items in a certain
category, all the unread items or all the links which
you have saved into your ‘read me’ list.
Good though it is, Awasu isn’t perfect. For example,
its drag and drop support is, frankly, a bit odd. You
can’t drag an RSS link directly from a web page
in order to subscribe in a single step. But you can drag
a web page containing a feed into Awasu at which point
it blinks an XML button to show that it has autodetected
the feed. You can then click the button to subscribe.
Another curiosity is that, while you can assign categories
(such as ‘News’ or ‘My Favourites’)
to feeds, these categories are not displayed as outline-headers
or ‘folders’ as in many other feed readers.
Instead they are used solely as ‘filters’ so
that, for example, you can optionally choose to display
only the feeds in the ‘News’ category. The
company tells me that both these features will be added
to the next release of the software, expected by the
end of the year.
You can optionally tile or cascade the feed-pages in Awasu. Notice the XML button
at the top-right. This flashes when a page contains a feed and you can click
it to subscribe to the feed itself
I also encountered one other curiosity. I discovered
that the items displayed by Awasu from the Bitwise feed
were not in the same order as the items in the feed itself.
I reported this to Awasu and was informed that the item
order “ depends what order items were *first* received
be Awasu. What's probably happened is that some items
were received and then you've edited some of them or
your publishing software has altered the order of items
in the feed. If you create the channel anew, the item
order matches what's in the feed. ” While I am
not aware of having altered the order of items in the
feed, deleting the existing feed in Awasu and subscribing
afresh did fix the problem.
Awasu has a good many useful options available. For
example, it can not only disable the display of notification
popups (‘balloons’) when new items are detected
but can also selectively disable them at program startup
(when there may be dozens) but enable them subsequently.
The application is also ‘skinned’ and you
can change the style and colours of the buttons, bars
and menus by loading up a new skin or ‘visualization’.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many of these available
(just four at present).
As with FeedReader and SharpReader, Awasu can import
channels from OPML. There are also a few optional third-party
plugins available which can add new features to the program
such as the Web Scrape plugin which extracts information
from web pages that have no feed.
The Awasu Personal Edition (the one I’ve been
using) is free. The Advanced Edition costs $25 and the
Professional Edition costs $45. The Advanced and Professional
Editions add certain features such as the ability to
auto-refresh channels more frequently (the free edition
does this once an hour) and the ability to load more
plugins. A table of the differences can be found here:
My initial impressions of Awasu were so favourable
that I really wanted to be able to recommend this software.
However, due to deficiencies in certain features I am
unable to do so - yet. But I plan to keep an eye on future
releases. This is definitely a program that shows potential.
News In A Box
$19.95 (Free 30 Day Trial)
In A Box displays a digest of some of the best newsfeeds
around. It’s easy to get up and running
but doesn’t give the user much control
If you want to be able to read news from around the
globe without having to search for and subscribe to a
whole load of RSS newsfeeds, News In A Box might be the
program for you. I say ‘might be’ for the
simple reason that I’ve decided that it isn’t
the program for me…
The basic idea is that it automatically subscribes
to newsfeeds from a host of major providers such as the
BBC, the New York Times and CNN. When you launch News
In A Box, items from those feeds are arranged together
on a page in a fashion somewhat resembling a page in
a newspaper. To view the entire content of the linked
page, you double-click the item and the page is loaded
into your web browser. So far so good: it’s easy
to use, it doesn’t require any special configuration
and it auto-subscribes to some useful newsfeeds. If you
want to add more feeds you can just drag and droop the
feed direct from an RSS button into the News In A Box
It's easy to put a feed
into an existing category, but to add a new category
such as Computing (seen here), you have to create a categorised
link in a HTML page (as shown above the Feed Administration
dialog) rather than simply adding it using the News In
A Box program itself
So why don’t I like it? In a word, configurability.
Or lack thereof. You can adjust the page layout by selecting
varying numbers of columns or a ‘headlines only’ view
and you can categorise feeds beneath predefined category
headers such as ‘Business’ and ‘Culture’.
But you can’t easily add new categories or change
the names of existing ones. At present new categories
can only be added by creating a category name in the
web-page link to the feed. The developer of News In A
Box tells me that built-in category addition and editing
will be added to a future version of the software.
There are, of course, lots of other feed reading programs
too. Here are a few that you may want to try out. FeedDemon (http://www.feeddemon.com/) a popular RSS reader for
Windows $29.95 with a free 14 day trial; Straw (http://www.nongnu.org/straw/)
a free program for GNOME Unix/Linux; Netnewswire (http://ranchero.com/netnewswire/)
an RSS/Atom reader for Mac OS X which costs $24.95 and
has a 30 day free trial.
Moreover, there are alternatives to dedicated feed
reading programs. While Microsoft Internet Explorer will ‘soon’ support
RSS, some other web browsers such as Firefox, Opera and
Apple’s Safari already offer varying degrees of
When Firefox detects a feed in the curent web page
it lets you click a small 'detector' button in order
Subscribed feeds are added to the menu of bookmarks and
the list of items pops out on a submenu
Free (shows ads); $39 to buy (no ads)
Opera provides a context-sensitive menu to let you subscribe
to an RSS feed
Opera provides a fairly traditional feed-reading interface
which is integrated with the web browser
Tip: In order for a web browser
such as Firefox or IE 7 (when available) to be
able to detect the presence of a feed on a web
page, you need to add a <link> directive inside
the <head></head> tags
of the HTML page containing the like to the feed.
For example, this is the Bitwise link tag:
<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="Bitwise
In your own pages, just substitute the actual
title and href link to your feed.
To get you started, here are a few interesting feeds
(note, the links are not 'active' - just copy and paste
them into an RSS reader) …
BBC News Headlines: http://newsrss.bbc.co.uk/rss/newsonline_uk_edition/front_page/rss.xml
Technology Headlines: http://newsrss.bbc.co.uk/rss/newsonline_uk_edition/technology/rss.xml
Top Stories: http://rss.cnn.com/rss/cnn_topstories.rss
Post Technology: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/rss/technology/index.xml
(political blog): http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/index.rdf
(news for nerds): http://www.slashdot.org/slashdot.rdf
forgetting Bitwise: http://www.bitwisemag.com/rss/feed.xml
If you are searching for interesting feeds, take a
look at the Radio Community Server’s list of the
100 Most-Subscribed-To RSS Feeds http://radio.xmlstoragesystem.com/rcsPublic/rssHotlist and the syndic8 directory of RSS and Atom feeds http://www.syndic8.com/