September 8, 2011

During my final semester of college, I took a class on social media and web applications. That was the main reason that Written Adventure was located on blogger. It cannot be found there anymore, neither will a search over at the Internet Archive yield results, as of yet. That class covered many things that I knew about and very little that I did not know, so much so that I averaged 98% in my class and was told that my analysis of each thing was rather in-depth. One thing that I do remember dealing with was the use of RSS and ATOM feeds, which I will cover today.

Even today, it surprises me at how little people are aware of site feeds. I like them because I do not have to visit sites every so often, just to get updates. However, Android phones do not really have any applications that are just aggregators, or readers, so I could not get the feeds of my choice without using Google Reader for the longest time, but I have found a solution to that. Anyway, back on subject, what feeds do is creates a link with the server on which content is presented to a client, or reading application. Every time the client checks the provided address, it will let the user know if there are any new messages, kind of like E-mail. This is the reason why it is not necessary to visit websites on a frequent basis. Feeds allow visitors to be updated on their schedule.

That sounds useful, but you did not cover ATOM or RSS. What are the differences? From a user's perspective, there really is nothing special about either one. They basically do the same thing and that is serve content to people. However, on the implementation end of a web developer or designer, there are a few differences. ATOM allows for nested feeds and HTML content right inside a feed. Again, this has practically no advantages for an end user, but the web developer can customize the content to however they like. Also, since feeds can be nested, this is the main reason ATOM is used for catalogs for programs like Aldiko and Stanza (iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad). In other words, every time you add a catalog to programs like those mentioned, you are actually adding a feed to the program. RSS does not have the capabilities of ATOM, but it is much more mainstream. Those beloved podcasts on whatever device you have are actually RSS feeds. Every time Miro or iTunes pings podcasts for you, it reads the RSS feeds, which contain audio or video. This pretty much means both formats are used to deliver files to people. ATOM can utilize HTML and nested feeds. It most often used with ebook readers. RSS does not utilize HTML nor can it have nested feeds, but it delivers audio and video podcasts to people.

Those are the applications of those feeds? I better scour the web and start using them for my sites too. Not so fast, not every site out there has a feed to subscribe with. Even if the site did, you still need client software, since iTunes and Miro only support podcast feeds and ebook readers usually do not have the functionality to read feeds without a middleman.

Things that read RSS/ATOM feeds:

  • Web clients
  • E-mail clients
  • Feed Aggregators

First, we will start off with web clients. There are many out there and Google Reader is the biggest name of them all. Web clients are mainly web-based apps, but I will also include web browsers in the mix here. In Safari or Firefox, if a feed is bookmarked, they should regularly be checked for updates by the browser. It has not happened a lot in my case, so I kind of stay away from the browser arena. However, Google Reader and others like update more reliably and they have the advantage of being accessible from any device. I do not really like my data to be on third-party servers a lot though, so I have settled for Tiny Tiny RSS, which works like a self-hosted version of Google Reader. My main complaint though is that Google puts in feeds I do not care about, as well as my important ones. Yes, pretty much all web-based clients add unwanted feeds, but every time you say follow a blog on Blogger, the feed is automatically added to Google Reader, which means that following a blog just means subscribing to its feed. I still have the feeds from my former classmates stuck in there and want to remove them, but I do not want to remove them from my Blogger account, which I still use to comment on Blogger blogs. However, it is nice that things can be organized as certain things, like I recently found out how to enable in Tiny Tiny RSS. Web clients are usually platform-independent, thus can be accessed on any device.

Now, I will discuss E-mail clients. This is my all-time favorite of the desktop clients that can read feeds, and it even makes sense for such programs to support them. Why waste time by opening a different application or leaving the E-mail interface? Feeds are usually their own inboxes in this kind of set up and the mail client will check for feed updates at the same moment it checks for new E-mail messages, or at least it should. Two programs in particular that can read RSS/ATOM feeds are Apple Mail for the Mac OS or Thunderbird, which is cross-platform. Between the two, Apple Mail is the best in terms of appearance and ease of subscribing to feeds, whereas Thunderbird required me to manually create an inbox for RSS feeds. Unfortunately, Gmail on Android does not support feeds and there is no native Reader application like there is for Google Calendar and Picasa, so third-party software is required. Even then, I do not get the freedom that I enjoy of Apple Mail and Thunderbird, which do not require a third-party service and I can subscribe to feeds right in the program, whereas third-party Android apps do not have the ability to add feeds and almost all require access to Google Reader, which means all feeds must be subscribed to via Google Reader. As I mentioned earlier, I eventually found a solution, but it is still nowhere as good, or convenient, as Apple Mail and Thunderbird. E-mail client usually check for both E-mail messages and feed updates, thus not requiring the user to leave the interface.

Finally, I will talk about Feed Aggregators, or dedicated Desktop clients. These are honestly the most inconvenient. The user has to open up a new application just for feed updates, instead of the convenience of a web browser or E-mail client. Some may not find this a big deal, but multiple applications open is not always convenient, especially when some of those Applications have multiple windows and users do not have the convenience of Expose, which is much more suited for its purpose than Flip 3D, which was introduced in the Vista virus. Feed aggregators work like iTunes and Miro do for podcasts, which is basically updating feeds. They can be read at your leisure and whatever feeds you want follow will be added. There are many out there, but this kind is so inconvenient that I cannot recommend any applications. Feed Aggregators only update feeds.

In retrospect, feeds reduce the need to regularly visit sites, just to find out if sites have been updated. They already widely used from podcasts to ebook reader catalogs. In order to subscribe to the site through a feed, the site must have either an RSS or ATOM feed and the end user must have a client, which includes:

  • Web clients
  • E-mail clients
  • Feed Aggreators (Desktop clients)

Out of the three, web clients and E-mail clients being the most useful. For the reason that the latter only updates feeds and cannot be accessed from everywhere, whereas the latter of the former two updates both feeds and E-mail inboxes and the most former can be accessed from any device.

Speaking of feeds, subscribe to this blog in your favorite reader. Each tag has its own feed too, so you can get updates on whatever you want, instead of whatever I feel like.

What is your opinion? Feel free to comment.

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