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Order From Chaos Via RSS

Businesses are taking a cue from bloggers with a new way of distributing information. The appeal: It's really simple.

In a world of content overload--with E-mail always pushing information and thousands of Web sites pulling us--more people are using RSS readers to cope. The grassroots technology, used for the past few years by bloggers and news junkies, is finding a place in business-computing environments as a fast and easy way to channel information to customers, employees, and partners. It's also catching on as a cheap but effective approach to application integration.

RSS, short for Really Simple Syndication, defines a way to let people subscribe to their favorite information sources on the Web. It uses an XML-based content-syndication protocol to do it. (Variants known as Rich Site Summary and RDF Site Summary use a slightly different protocol.) A like-minded protocol called Atom also is gaining popularity.

Among other things, RSS is emerging as an antidote to some of E-mail's most frustrating problems. While technical countermeasures do a passable job of blocking spam and phishing attacks from beyond the firewall, the sheer volume of E-mail from legitimate senders has companies looking for ways to communicate through the clutter. "People get a lot of what we'll call occupational spam, where there's information that may be delivered to you every day, but you can have too much of it," says Michael Pusateri, VP of engineering with the Disney ABC Cable Networks Group.

The Disney division has begun using software from NewsGator Technologies Inc. to let employees run RSS feeds alongside their Microsoft Outlook E-mail clients. Instead of offering a link to a document, for example, an E-mail message can contain the live information via RSS, along with a link to the Web application that stores the original report. "We can make the applications present an always-up-to-date version of the information," Pusateri says.

Disney uses RSS feeds to avoid the overload of

Disney uses RSS feeds to avoid the overload of "occupational spam," VP Pusateri says.

Photo by Eddie Milla
While this approach doesn't entirely free users from having to deal with E-mail, it does shift the burden of maintaining distribution lists from an IT administrator to the user. It also reduces E-mail traffic by making sure that messages containing RSS information are wanted.

There's more you can do with RSS. Insurance and financial-services company ING Group N.V. recently implemented KnowNow Inc.'s Enterprise Syndication Server to deliver work-related information via RSS to employees. Instead of searching for information on company portals and other Web sites, employees now have the information sent to them, improving both productivity and internal communications.

A similar approach can be used to deliver data from a company's internal business applications to the specialists who need it, says Ron Rasmussen, KnowNow's chief technology officer. "I can create an RSS channel for the finance department called 30-days-past-due receivables," he says. "They just look at their RSS reader."

The Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, whose members are IT companies that support law-enforcement and Justice Department operations, uses RSS and Atom feeds that came built into its blogging software from Traction Software Inc. to keep committee members up to date on recent developments. "Some of our more technical committees that had some familiarity with RSS saw immediately how they could use that inside their workspace to provide a publish-and-subscribe capability so they don't have to rely on going hunting to see if there's something new in their committee work," executive director Paul Wormelli says.

The institute uses grant money to help state and local agencies adopt new technology, and committee members regularly publish papers that require comment from members in other locations. The benefit Wormelli sees is that information distribution becomes automatic. "No one has to initiate the distribution of information using an RSS feed," he says. "The main purpose is to put things in an E-mail form without anyone having to take the action to do that, and to not force stuff on people that they don't want to take the time to look at."

Major news sites and most noteworthy Weblogs publish their content as RSS feeds. They can be viewed using an RSS reader application, an online aggregation site such as Bloglines.com, or an RSS-enabled Web browser such as Apple Computer's Safari, Mozilla's Firefox, or Microsoft's upcoming Internet Explorer 7.0.

Microsoft's growing interest in RSS heralds even broader adoption in the months ahead, portending a day when RSS becomes a standard feature of many PC applications. Microsoft plans to support RSS in its next major operating-system upgrade, the recently dubbed Windows Vista, formerly known as Longhorn and due in 2006. "Really, we're at the beginnings of this," says Gary Schare, director of product management for Windows. "The people who own the content are just realizing the power of it. And the tools we use to publish content internally are just starting to become RSS-enabled."

RSS gives people an efficient new way to organize their information resources. Users can track the publication of frequently updated content across any number of sites simultaneously from a single, simple interface, and, because they only receive the RSS feeds to which they subscribe, filtering unrequested information isn't necessary. In that sense, RSS is a proactive search technology--it goes out and grabs information on designated subjects from trusted sources.

Because RSS was designed from the outset to be a means for summarizing information, the feeds can be scanned and comprehended easily. Compare that with E-mail, where in-boxes clog up with unwanted missives and, thanks to overzealous filters, sought-after messages sometimes get blocked. Twenty percent of consumers are concerned that desired E-mail can get trapped in filters, according to research firm Forrester Research. And some E-mail messages don't deliver relevant information efficiently, particularly call-to-action messages that point to a Word or Excel document or other application.

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