Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Feed(s) For Thought

Do any of the following lines ring a bell?

  • "Oh! {xyz} had written up on ____ (fill-in-the-blanks-with-a-topic-of-your-choice) ?? Damn, I missed it. I haven't visited his blog in the past 3 months you know?"
  • "These days I'm going a bit slow on blogsurfing. I've been wasting lot of time visiting all my favorite blogs every morning .. just to find out there have been no updates."
  • "Whoa! The list of blogs I follow is bloating. Its gonna be difficult to manage!"

Then Feed-Reader is the magic wand which will solve all your problems.

Web feeds have been around for quite some time (i've been using feed readers for three-plus years now). But it seems that the technology has not been publicized properly - a majority of my friends are not aware of such a thing. Whats more surprising is that most of them are techies themselves! Reason enough for me to write up a post on the topic.

So, how does this feed technology work?

Pretty simple actually:
1. You subscribe to a particular blog/forum/what-have-you - basically any website which provides a feed. You do this using a feed reader.
2. Your feed reader periodically checks whether there has been any new activity on that site. Of course, your feed reader does this automatically, without your intervention.
3. If there has been any new activity (for example a new blog post), then your feed reader fetches only this "new content" and stores it.
4. Next time you login to your feed reader, you have that new blog post ready for you to read!

The easiest way to see this in action is to use Google Reader. All you need is a Google account. Go Ahead. Try it out. It only takes a couple of minutes.

As an example, follow these steps:
1. Go to Google Reader and log in using your Google account.
2. Click on "Add a subscription".
3. Type a feed URL to which you want to subscribe. The feed URL can be found on the site to which you want to subscribe. It is normally marked by the Orange "Feed" Icon -. For this example, enter the following feed url in the text box:
4. Click on "Add".

Thats it! Next time a new post is added on BlogSarovar, it will show up in your Google Reader.

So, what did I gain by using a feed reader?

Well, to start with - suppose there are a dozen websites you follow regularly. If you subscribe to all of them using a feed reader; all you need to do is login to your feed-reader to know who's updating what. You do not need to open one dozen websites every morning!

There are other advantages. If you are behind a firewall and do not have access to certain news/blog sites; but you do have access to Google Reader. Then you get the updates from the sites without having access to them!

What Next?

Start using web feeds NOW and save time and energy; not to mention preserve your patience :D. The list of feeds one has subscribed to can be exchanged between various users, so one does not need to start from scratch and manually subscribe to each and every feed! In Google Reader; this can be done under Settings-> Import/Export

Advanced Topics

There are various forms feed readers take. Google Reader is a web-based one. The advantage of this is that you can read your feeds from anywhere - all you need is a computer with an internet connection.

Then there are desktop feed-readers. An example of this is Omea Reader. The advantage of desktop readers is that they can access feeds within the corporate firewalls. For example, if you want to subscribe to a blog hosted on your company intranet; then Google Reader might not be a good choice - How will the Google Reader server access your company intranet? The other advantage of desktop feed-readers is that you do not need to be online to read your feeds. Many desktop readers pull the data and store it offline for you to read whenever you are free. (Semi-connected technologies like Google Gears are blurring this line between web-based and offline readers).

Other than this, feed readers could also be integrated into your other day-to-day applications - your email client, IM client, Office suite, browser, media player ... the list goes on ...

One point to remember is that the authors of the feeds have control over the amount of information published as a feed. For example, Blogger allows you to specify whether the entire post should be included in the feed, or only a summary. If the author chooses to publish only a summary, then you would still need to visit the original site to read the full post. However, your feed-reader is still useful in the sense that it still informs you when a new post has been published on the blog. You do not need to keep "polling" to find if a new post has been added.

One final consideration while using feed-readers is that of authentication. Some feeds might not be public - an example is feeds from a private blog on Blogger. Reading posts on this blog would require you to login with a username/password. The same applies to feeds from such a site. Feed-readers have a feature wherein you can save the credentials for a particular feed - so that the reader automatically signs in and fetches the feed for you.

I'l conclude by saying that I hope to see you on the Feed bandwagon!