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7/29/2005
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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.



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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