All posts tagged ‘RSS’

A DIY Data Manifesto

The word “server” is enough to send all but the hardiest nerds scurrying for cover.

The word usually conjures images of vast, complex data farms, databases and massive infrastructures. True, servers are all those things — but at a more basic level, they’re just like your desktop PC.

Running a server is no more difficult than starting Windows on your desktop. That’s the message Dave Winer, forefather of blogging and creator of RSS, is trying to get across with his EC2 for Poets project. The name comes from Amazon’s EC2 service and classes common in liberal arts colleges, like programming for poets or computer science for poets. The theme of such classes is that anyone — even a poet — can learn technology.

Winer wants to demystify the server. “Engineers sometimes mystify what they do, as a form of job security,” writes Winer, “I prefer to make light of it… it was easy for me, why shouldn’t it be easy for everyone?”

To show you just how easy it is to set up and run a server, Winer has put together an easy-to-follow tutorial so you too can set up a Windows-based server running in the cloud. Winer uses Amazon’s EC2 service. For a few dollars a month, Winer’s tutorial can have just about anyone up and running with their own server.

In that sense Winer’s EC2 for Poets if already a success, but education and empowerment aren’t Winer’s only goals. “I think it’s important to bust the mystique of servers,” says Winer, “it’s essential if we’re going to break free of the ‘corporate blogging silos.’”

The corporate blogging silos Winer is thinking of are services like Twitter and Facebook. Both have been instrumental in the growth of the web, they make it easy for anyone publish. But they also suffer denial of service attacks, government shutdowns and growing pains, centralized services like Twitter and Facebook are vulnerable. Services wrapped up in a single company are also vulnerable to market whims, Geocities is gone, FriendFeed languishes at Facebook and Yahoo is planning to sell Delicious. A centralized web is brittle web, one that can make our data, our communications tools disappear tomorrow.

But the web will likely never be completely free of centralized services and Winer recognizes that. Most people will still choose convenience over freedom. Twitter’s user interface is simple, easy to use and works on half a dozen devices.

Winer doesn’t believe everyone will want to be part of the distributed web, just the dedicated. But he does believe there are more people who would choose a DIY path if they realized it wasn’t that difficult.

Winer isn’t the only one who believes the future of the web will be distributed systems that aren’t controlled by any single corporation or technology platform. Microformats founder Tantek Çelik is also working on a distributed publishing system that seeks to retain all the cool features of the social web, but remove the centralized bottleneck.

But to be free of corporate blogging silos and centralized services the web will need an army of distributed servers run by hobbyists, not just tech-savvy web admins, but ordinary people who love the web and want to experiment.

So while you can get your EC2 server up and running today — and even play around with Winer’s River2 news aggregator — the real goal is further down the road. Winer’s vision is a distributed web where everything is loosely coupled. “For example,” Winer writes, “the roads I drive on with my car are loosely-coupled from the car. I might drive a SmartCar, a Toyota or a BMW. No matter what car I choose I am free to drive on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, Sixth Avenue or the Bay Bridge.”

Winer wants to start by creating a loosely coupled, distributed microblogging service like Twitter. “I’m pretty sure we know how to create a micro-blogging community with open formats and protocols and no central point of failure,” he writes on his blog.

For Winer that means decoupling the act of writing from the act of publishing. The idea isn’t to create an open alternative to Twitter, it’s to remove the need to use Twitter for writing on Twitter. Instead you write with the tools of your choice and publish to your own server.

If everyone publishes first to their own server there’s no single point of failure. There’s no fail whale, and no company owns your data. Once the content is on your server you can then push it on to wherever you’d like — Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress of whatever the site du jour is ten years from now.

The glue that holds this vision together is RSS. Winer sees RSS as the ideal broadcast mechanism for the distributed web and in fact he’s already using it — Winer has an RSS feed of links that are then pushed on to Twitter. No matter what tool he uses to publish a link, it’s gathered up into a single RSS feed and pushed on to Twitter.

Dave Winer's RSS-centric vision of a distributed web image by dave winer via flickr

Winer will be first to admit that a distributed system like he imagines is still a little ways off, but as they say, the longest journey starts with a single step. For Winer EC2 for Poets is part of that first step. If you’ve never set up your own server, don’t even really totally understand what a server is, well, time to find out. Head on over to the EC2 for Poets site and you’ll have a server up and running fifteen minutes from now. The distributed web awaits you.

File Under: Browsers, Web Basics

Firefox 4 Ditches the RSS Button, Here’s how to get it Back

That dark spot no one clicks? Yes, that's the RSS button

Firefox 4 is nearly complete. The next version of the venerable web browser introduces dozens of new features — everything from built-in bookmark syncing to hardware acceleration — but it also removes a few noteworthy features as well.

The now-departed status bar — which has been replaced by the add-ons bar — isn’t the only thing that’s been relegated to dustbin in Firefox 4. The familiar RSS icon in the URL bar is gone as well.

RSS has a long, complicated history and, despite its usefulness to the web at large, it just never caught on with mainstream users. RSS may power much of the web behind the scenes, but from a user’s point of view it remains an awkward tool with a terrible user interface. As Firefox developer Leslie Orchard points out, clicking the old Firefox RSS button would give you “a plainly-styled version of what you were probably already looking at on a site.” Of course, if you knew what you were doing, you could quickly either create a live bookmark or add the RSS feed to a feed reader. But for the uninitiated, the UI was confusing enough that Orchard says “some people would think they broke the page when the button was clicked on accident.”

According to Mozilla’s user study the RSS icon was clicked by a scant 3 percent of users. The only thing more neglected is the scroll left button, which is only present on very wide websites. With no one using the button, Firefox designers decided to remove it from the increasingly cluttered URL bar.

Cue the outrage and pleading for its return.

But just because the RSS button has lost its former position in the toolbar doesn’t mean you can’t easily subscribe to RSS feeds in Firefox 4. There’s a new menu option under the Bookmarks menu that will offer to “Subscribe to this page” and you can also add a subscribe button to your toolbar if you like. Just head to the customize option under the View menu and you’ll see a new toolbar button for RSS feed. Drag that button to the toolbar and you’ve restored the RSS button.

Given that seemingly no one used to original button, removing it hardly seems a bad thing, especially when it’s easy to get it back.

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File Under: Software, Web Apps

Google Reader Dumps Offline Access, Old Browsers

Google Reader is losing some features. As of June 1, Reader will no longer offer offline access and users of older browsers will see a notice suggesting they upgrade to a newer browser with support for current web standards.

The browser support change isn’t all that surprising; Google Docs made a similar change earlier this year. The main target of the policy change is Internet Explorer 6. But lest you think Google Reader is picking on Microsoft, the announcement also targets the company’s own Chrome 3, which is barely six months old.

Other browsers no longer supported include Firefox 1 and 2.0, and Safari 2.0 and 3.0.

According Mihai Parparita, a technical lead for Google Reader, the new browser requirements will enable Google Reader to spend more time on new features. “Reader is a cutting-edge web application, and this will allow us to spend our time improving Reader instead of fixing issues with antiquated browsers,” he writes on the official Reader blog.

Older web browsers aren’t the only thing Reader is leaving behind. Also like Google Docs, Reader will be ditching the Gears-powered offline support (launched back in 2007). However, unlike Google Docs, Reader won’t be replacing Gears with HTML5-based offline tools. With Reader, Google is simply dropping offline support for the time being.

Instead, the Google Reader blog suggests downloading desktop software that syncs to Reader and downloads your items. While that’s certainly one way to sync feeds and read them offline, the main point of the orginal offline support was that it worked in the browser without the need for extra desktop apps.

The Reader team claims that only a small percentage of users ever took advantage of the offline support. But for those that did, there’s really no substitute.

The good news is that the Reader team claims this bit of “Spring cleaning” will pave the way for new features and improvements in Google Reader. Without the need to support older browsers, Reader will presumably be able to take advantage of things like HTML5 and CSS 3, though so far Google has given no hints as to what any new features might entail.

In the meantime, you’ll have to switch to a syncing app if you want to read Google Reader items without a web connection. Some of the more popular ones for the iPhone/iPod are Feeds, Byline and Reeder. For the desktop, there’s FeedDemon, NetNewsWire and RSS Bandit. For Android, we like NewsRob and Feedr. Let us know about your favorite in the comments.

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RSS for Beginners

Have you ever noticed those inviting orange buttons on some web pages, or spotted the odd link pitching an “RSS feed”? If you’ve ever clicked one out of curiosity, and then scratched your head at the unformatted gobbledygook in your web browser, you’ve seen an RSS file.


What is it really for, anyway? Two things: RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and Atom are two specialized formats that create what’s commonly called a news feed, or just feed. A feed is an easy way for sites to share headlines and stories so that you can read them without having to visit two dozen different web pages everyday.

In other words, web builders use feeds to dish out fresh news and content from their websites and web surfers can use feed applications to collect custom-tailored selections of their favorite websites to be read at their leisure.

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Use Media RSS

With the explosive growth of podcasting, publishers are including more multimedia in their RSS feeds than ever. While the method of including media content in an RSS feed with enclosures is fairly well known, there are other methods available for including media content in RSS feeds, one of which is Media RSS.

Media RSS is an RSS module that was created to expand the way that multimedia content could be included in an RSS feed.

Originally authored by Yahoo! to improve media enclosures in RSS and also allow the submission of media content to its search engine via RSS, the development of Media RSS has since been opened up to the RSS community through the rss-media mailing list. Full disclosure: I’m also one of the people at Yahoo! who worked on the creation of Media RSS.

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