Order From Chaos Via RSS - InformationWeek

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7/29/2005
10:05 AM
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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.

Company portals get around some of the drawbacks but tend to suffer in terms of relevance. It's inherently difficult to design a site to present documents and applications that are equally relevant to everyone. RSS, because it's controlled by the user, ends up being optimally tuned to each individual.

Even though it was introduced in 1999, RSS still isn't widely used. A January study published by the nonprofit Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 5% of adult Internet users employed RSS readers to aggregate news. But adoption is growing, and businesses are part of the wave. "Corporations have really taken hold of RSS and are starting to publish information, whether that's product-sheet updates, sales data, or any other kind of data that's important for employee communication," says A.V. "Sandy" Hamilton, executive VP of NewsGator Technologies.

In what's becoming a common usage scenario, Microsoft started using RSS as a way to publish information outside the company, and now it's finding new internal uses. "Many of [our] information sources inside the firewall are beginning to publish with RSS," Schare says.

There has been a spike in interest in places such as the travel industry. "I've spoken with several different companies of various sizes that are intrigued with RSS, both for internal communications and for consumer communications," Forrester analyst Henry Harteveldt says.

So far, RSS hasn't been co-opted by marketers and malware writers. Online marketers may have inadvertently hastened the adoption of RSS by pestering users to distraction. But RSS feeds appear only when you subscribe to them. That translates into a much better signal-to-noise ratio. "Companies are waking up to this," Harteveldt says. "And they realize that E-mail is stagnating as an effective way of reaching customers."

Consider the benefits of RSS in delivering real-time information that requires action. "If you're a field security person, and your job is to be up to speed on any new security issue that goes public or the new updates, when we ship them each month, then you want to be kept up to date when that happens," Schare says. "We've begun to use RSS to publish that information so people are able to get it very easily, [rather than] through E-mail with the rest of the clutter."

RSS also has this perk for business environments: It handles a variety of data types, not just news articles. Words and numbers, the bulk of most databases, are easily converted into XML for transport. Other kinds of data, such as MP3 audio files, can be included in RSS feeds, too. In essence, RSS can serve as a lightweight data-integration system.

"What we're finding when we talk to enterprises is they're years into integration projects, EDI projects, big-bus projects, the ultimate schema for the enterprise that everyone will use," KnowNow's Rasmussen says. "Then as soon as they define it, it's out of date. And it's just not working. They really are trying to transform and normalize too much information."

RSS can't solve all of a company's data-integration problems, but it can help with some of them and at a fraction of the cost. "You'll get it done in weeks, not months or years, and you'll be adding business value immediately and moving on to the next project," Rasmussen says.

Gartner analyst Ray Valdes calls this "poor man's integration" and notes that while he's starting to get inquiries from clients about RSS, such uses are occurring in an ad hoc, grassroots way. A protocol called Information and Content Exchange, designed to support many of the same use cases as RSS, debuted last year with the backing of Adobe, Microsoft, Time Warner, and others. But because of cost and complexity, ICE wasn't widely adopted, Valdes says, while RSS continues on an upward trend.


News feeds as viewed using Bradbury Software's FeedDemon Really Simple Syndication reader for desktop computers.
(click image for larger view)


News feeds as viewed using Bradbury Software's FeedDemon Really Simple Syndication reader for desktop computers.
New College of California, a small liberal-arts college in San Francisco, has been using KnowNow's LiveServer to coordinate and integrate business-critical reports, some generated manually and some by older computer systems. With RSS, the management and distribution of reports is easier. "These legacy systems depended on having applications installed on your computer," says Mark Gould, a developer in information services at New College. It "helps immensely" that reports can now be read using a browser, he says.

Educational institutions generate and track a range of reports related to student financial aid. "As an educational institution, our income is tuition from students," Gould says. "The more we're able to facilitate students getting the actual aid they need and that all paperwork is processed and done, [the more] our enrollment improves."

RSS will be used increasingly to syndicate data that's automatically produced and in turn may be automatically consumed as RSS becomes as much a means for data integration between applications as for publishing and aggregating news content, Valdes predicts. He cites the example of Amazon.com Inc., which publishes hundreds of RSS feeds that pertain to its products. While individuals may continue to subscribe to these feeds, he suggests it will be content aggregation and data-mining systems that leverage this information most effectively.

Illustration by Alicia Buelow

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