Problem solve Get help with specific problems with your technologies, process and projects.

Free RSS readers: What you need to know

Do you RSS? If "Really Simple Syndication" is foreign to you, this tip will bring you up to speed by introducing how the increasingly popular news-feed technology works and how you can use it to keep yourself informed.

The Extensible Markup Language, aka XML, shows up in some of the most interesting places nowadays. That's because XML lends itself very well to capture, delivery, and presentation of all kinds of content and data across many platforms and applications. One of the most compelling demonstrations of this capability occurs inside an XML application known as RSS. Though this TLA (three-letter acronym) may not be familiar to many, the kinds of content feeds that RSS allows -- including news and Web logs, or blogs -- are of interest to most Internet users.

RSS was originally developed by Netscape for the Netcenter news channels freely accessible through its Website and browser. RSS adheres to the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C's) Resource Description Framework (RDF). RSS itself stands for Really Simple Syndication, but has also been decoded as RDF Site Summary or Rich Site Summary. Syndication adequately expresses RSS's ability to distribute headlines, broadcast update notices, or other general types of content -- which can be anything from simple text, to multimedia, to arbitrary files of any type -- to those who sign up to receive specific RSS data streams also known as RSS feeds. Blogs probably represent the best-known type of RSS feed, but RSS can handle news, software updates, or arbitrary files with equal aplomb and facility.

More on this topic

Learn more about TechTarget's RSS feeds

Browse our Admin tips

RSS is based on what's called a "publish and subscribe" metaphor. A Web server acts as the server side of this equation, in that it creates a description of whatever content is available in RSS format, along with a specific location or URL that points at each such content item. The server also registers that RSS content with any of a number of publicly-accessible directories of RSS content. Together, these represent the "publish" side of RSS. Users with RSS-enabled Web browsers or who use programs that can read RSS content (usually called RSS aggregators, RSS readers, and so forth) periodically visit these directories to see what kinds of content of interest to them might be available. One of the most important user-side activities in working with RSS is to indicate which feeds are of interest, which constitutes the sign-up part of the "subscription" side of the RSS equation. Regular visits to RSS directories complete the client side of RSS subscription, and provide notification when new content is available from a specific RSS feed. Some software may automatically deliver that content (often in the form of an e-mail message), other software provides a list of pointers that users can access using an RSS reader program, a Web browser, or even a browser plug-in.

While some Web browsers -- most notably Netscape Navigator, Opera and FireFox for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, as well as Safari for Mac OS X -- feature built-in RSS-reading capabilities, Internet Explorer 6.0 and earlier versions do not (support is planned for the upcoming 7.0 release). That said, many users elect to install plug-in or add-on RSS readers anyway, because of added features and functions they deliver (the built-in FireFox RSS reader, for example, supports only a default RSS stylesheet that neither looks nor acts too terribly exciting).

When it comes to selecting an RSS reader, users have plenty of choices, because this software comes in a variety of types, including:

  1. Standalone readers (which may also integrate network news/NNTP newsreaders as well) are pretty popular (designated S in the Type field in Table 1, followed by W for Windows, M for Max OS X, L for Linux/Unix, or A for any or all of the preceding).
  2. Various browser plug-ins or extensions are available, not just for IE but also for FireFox, Navigator, and so forth, as well (designated as P in Table 1, followed by I for Internet Explorer, F for FireFox, O for Opera, or A for any or all of the preceding).
  3. E-mail delivery tools permit users to subscribe to newsfeeds, and get new content delivered to their e-mail inboxes (designated E in the Type field in Table 1, followed by O for Outlook, T for Thunderbird, P for Opera, and A for any or all of the preceding).
  4. Web-based RSS readers require only that a modern browser be used to access specific Websites, where users can register, specify their interests, then visit as they see fit to read content for the various feeds for which they've signed up (designated as W in Table 1, these items should work with equal facility on Windows, Unix/Linux, or Macintosh machines, unless they require a specific browser, in which case we add the same I/F/O notation alsoused for browser plug-ins). Table 1 lists some of the most popular RSS freeware, identifies each item by type, and provides a URL where readers can go to learn more (and download the software, should they wish to do so). All of these items get good reviews or ratings; many have earned awards or other marks of distinction.

Table 1: RSS freeware tools

Name Type URL
BlogLines WA
dynamicobjects spaces WA
FeedDemon SW
FeedReader SW (Open Source)
Google Reader PA
NetNewsWire SM
Newsgator EO
RSS Reader SW
SharpReader SW
Straw SL

Depending on your preferences and how you like to work, any or all of these tools should make a useful addition to your Internet information gathering capabilities.

Ed Tittel is a regular contributor to numerous TechTarget Web sites, who has been covering XML-based technologies for them since 2001. In addition to having written numerous XML books including XML For Dummies , Ed writes on XML topics for, and on Windows and Web technologies for other TechTarget sites as well. Contact Ed at with comments, questions, or suggestions for future articles and tips.
This was last published in January 2006

Dig Deeper on Network protocols and standards

Start the conversation

Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.