While the Digital Age has brought about a revolution in the way consumers access information, the Internet can be a formidable landscape in which to find anything. There's just so much content, all changing so quickly. Trying to keep up to date on even a handful of sites can be a daunting task, especially considering the constant struggle of many professionals to stay on top of an ever-increasing pile of pertinent matters.
A couple of years ago, a technology was introduced to help tackle this problem, opening up a new avenue through which content can be delivered: RSS feeds. RSS, short for Rich Site Summary (or Really Simple Syndication), enables users to subscribe to content from Web sites that offer RSS feeds. Once subscribed, users automatically receive content as it's posted to the Web site via an RSS feed aggregator/reader, effectively allowing them to keep up to date on as many sites and subjects as they deem necessary with little more than a glance.
But the power of RSS feeds extends far beyond merely catching articles as they appear online; they also can be a powerful research tool when combined with search functionality. The increasingly common use of enclosures—which provide a way to link multimedia files with items in an RSS feed—will only expand the overall usage of RSS in the future.
In the meantime, the RSS market is maturing rapidly. And, like most technology markets, there are many different solutions available to handle the RSS load today; there are literally dozens of RSS aggregators, both free and fee-based. All aggregators can be categorized under one of three headings: online, for Web-based aggregators; integrated, for those integrated into other programs like Outlook; and standalone, for tools that sit on an end user's desktop but that aren't integrated into other programs.
hinFeeder is a cross-platform, Java-based standalone RSS aggregator. It will run on any computer with Java installed (more than 90% of desktops qualify), and it supports anti-aliasing across all platforms. ThinFeeder comes with a handful of skins that allow you to change its look and will eventually support importing skins. With goals that are more than skin deep, the developers of ThinFeeder designed the reader with multi-language support. (Unfortunately, due to this writer's mono-linguistic nature, this feature was not fully explored.)
Beyond these three main features, ThinFeeder is a little light on capabilities. Unlike many other standalone aggregators, ThinFeeder does not currently allow you to set search parameters on incoming RSS feeds. While it does provide a list of some RSS feeds as well as links to sites that list active RSS feeds, its built-in RSS discovery capabilities don't match up to the major players in this space.
Despite these shortcomings, ThinFeeder's straightforward and elegant interface—along with its ability to work on nearly every computer—guarantee that this tool will enjoy a niche of users who will find that it's exactly what they're looking for. Plus, like Sage, ThinFeeder has an active support structure of developers not interested in trying to make a profit, but rather working on evolving the product as a labor of love.
Price-Free, $5.95-$49.95 for NewsGator Online Premium Services; $29.95 for NewsGator 2.0
NewsGator offers a free online RSS aggregation service as well, with many features similar to Bloglines such as a subscription bookmarklet for one-click RSS subscriptions from within a Web browser and the ability to generate new email addresses. However, the UI isn't quite as user-friendly and its feature set is slightly less rich than that of Bloglines. But for NewsGator, its free online service is really just the lure to draw in people who will hopefully decide to upgrade to NewsGator Online's premium service, which is where the real power within NewsGator Online lies. For anywhere from $5.95 to $49.95 a month, users gain access to a host of additional features. Foremost among these, from a research perspective, are the two additional search feeds that are made available for Keywords and URLs. Keyword Search looks for feeds across the Internet with instances of a particular keyword or phrase; URL Search takes a URL that you specify and searches the Internet for pages that link to it. Premium users can also subscribe to premium content feeds, which consist of both full content feeds of popular content and stuff available only through NewsGator. While gaining access to this premium content is nice, the current selection seems to be lacking as it includes only feeds from AsktheBuilder, Celebrity News Service, InfoWorld, Network Computing, UComics, and UWire. NewsGator Online's Premium Services also feature email feeds like those offered by Bloglines. The number of advanced searches you can perform, temporary email addresses you can set up, and premium content feeds that you can subscribe to are based on your subscription level.
What really separates the premium services of NewsGator Online from its free online aggregator (as well as any other free online aggregators out there) is the different ways in which users can access their RSS content from hardware peripherals and software. Premium members at all levels are able to download three different versions of NewsGator: Email Edition, Media Center Edition, and Mobile Edition. NewsGator Email Edition provides a way for users to read their RSS content in any POP3-capable email client that works with HTML emails, including Eudora, Outlook Express, and Entourage. NewsGator Media Center Edition—no surprise here—offers the ability to view RSS content on Media Center PCs. And NewsGator Mobile Edition works with any cell phone or other handheld that supports displaying HTML content.
NewsGator also sells a version of its aggregator separately for $29.95 that works inside of Microsoft Outlook called NewsGator 2.0. Since Outlook dominates the email client market, it makes sense that they chose to focus heavily on integrating with this program, and the implementation of that integration is seamless. During installation, users choose a base news folder in which to store their RSS content, which is displayed in the same format as email, giving users an identical user experience to that of Outlook. But this version of Newsgator isn't confined to Outlook; it also adds an option in Internet Explorer whereby you can right-click on RSS feeds and subscribe to them with a single click. Additionally, Outlook users using NewsGator 2.0 can post to their Weblogs or other publishing systems directly from Outlook. All levels of users, including free, can use NewsGator Online to synchronize their subscriptions among multiple copies of NewsGator 2.0.