Sarah Houghton used to get her online news the traditional way: by visiting 10 of her favorite sites several times a day. But since joining the free online service Bloglines a year ago, the San Rafael (Calif.) librarian surfs no more. Now the news comes to her. Using software known as RSS -- for Really Simple Syndication -- Bloglines pulls together regular updates from a variety of sites. Houghton can check them each time she logs on to the service. "RSS is the primary tool I use to get news," says Houghton, 27. "It's all delivered to me; I don't have to go searching anymore."
Houghton has plenty of company. Consumers, along with businesses such as Apple Computer (AAPL ), Netflix (NFLX ), and Yahoo! (YHOO ) are jumping aboard the RSS bandwagon. The reason: While Web sites have long sent promotions and news alerts to their visitors, RSS takes things to a whole new level by giving consumers much more control over what they see and how often they see it. "We believe the world is moving from mass media to 'my media,"' says Daniel L. Rosensweig, chief operating officer at Yahoo Inc., which last month began testing feeds to the 20 million subscribers of its My Yahoo service.
If you aren't familiar with RSS, perhaps you remember push technology, the late great killer app of the '90s. Like RSS, push let people get news updates delivered to their computers. But it used so much bandwidth it clogged corporate networks, and it never caught on because consumers had little control over what they got.
RSS -- designed by independent engineers and helped along by Netscape Communications Corp. -- was built to be simpler. Consumers can use it by downloading a news reader, such as FeedDemon or NewsGator, that pulls together updates in one place on a PC, or by signing up for an online service such as My Yahoo or Bloglines, which aggregate updates on a personalized Web page.
RSS began catching on a couple of years back, when Web logs, or blogs, started using it to let readers know they had posted something new. Soon traditional publishers dove in. During the past year, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and Reuters Group (RTRSY ) have added RSS feeds. Companies have only recently begun to experiment with putting ads on the services. For now they're attempting to lure readers to stories posted on the main site, where their ads are. To do that, big media outfits are putting only the barest information -- a headline or synopsis -- on their RSS feeds. To read the whole story, you click on a link and jump to the ad-rich main site.
TOPPLING THE GIANTS?
While RSS could help media titans sell more ads and keep users loyal, the technology could undermine the giants, too. RSS levels the playing field between upstarts and the established media, since news readers don't distinguish between blogs like Gizmodo, which covers consumer electronics, and publications such as PC Magazine. Some believe RSS could make online media even more fragmented than it is today, setting off a struggle for ad revenue. The biggies claim their brands will insulate them against upstarts. Says Catherine Levene, vice-president for product, business development, and strategy at New York Times Digital: "We think people will still come to [our site] for our editorial judgment."
So far most online merchants haven't embraced RSS. But the potential exists for Web stores to alert customers that they now have that snazzy blouse in aqua. Web-savvy outfits, including Amazon.com (AMZN ), Apple's iTunes Music Store, and the Netflix DVD-rental service already use RSS to alert customers to new music or movies. Analysts expect travel, apparel, and financial sites to start testing the technology early next year.
So is surfing dead? Not quite. While RSS is good for getting updates, it can't do research or comparison shopping. And although it's simpler to use than earlier technology, it remains more complicated than a browser. But RSS will probably evolve into one more way of bringing buyers and sellers together on the Web.
By Heather Green in New York