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You don't have to be a tech junkie to take advantage of one of Web 2.0's great conveniences: The RSS feed. With RSS(Really Simple Syndication) you can receive news and information without having to methodically go to various Web sites or perform a Google search. Essentially, instead of you finding "it" (where "it" is whatever topic of interest you specify), "it" finds you — whether you are at your desk or not.
Most major and many smaller sites and blogs offer RSS feeds as an option, and signing up for them is free. You can use RSS to keep tabs on your favorite sports team, of course, but the technology also has legitimate business purposes. For example, you can set the RSS feed from a news site or blog to forward new entries pertaining to your industry or to your competitors, to easily stay abreast of developments that might affect your company.
There are also specialized RSS applications aimed squarely at business people. For example, SimpleTracking.com is an online service that sends package-tracking info (DHL, FedEx and USPS, with UPS support pending) to you via RSS, so you don't need to manually check each site. And ScienceLogic, a provider of IT framework solutions, has released an IT management appliance that lets business owners use RSS feeds to track and manage their IT operations. The information can be streamed to a desktop reader, Web browser, or a handheld mobile device, which makes the product an ideal solution for a small business that relies on an off-site person to manage IT operations.
In the past, you needed a special utility (called an RSS reader or RSS aggregator) installed on your PC to retrieve RSS content from sites that offered such content. And this is still a viable option, especially if you subscribe to more than a handful of feeds. But it's not the only option.
Today, leading Web browsers and e-mail clients offer RSS support built-in, and Web portals let you manage and access feeds online from any PC, no download required. Plus, a growing army of mobile devices now supports the RSS standard, so you'll have access to the data you've requested even when you're on the road.
Add RSS to Your Desktop PC
NewsGator Technologies' NewsGator is nearly synonymous with RSS. Its latest software offering, NewsGator FeedDemon for Windows 2.1 ($29.95), is a desktop application for viewing and managing your RSS feeds. It features an easy-to-use interface that lets you specify topics and sites of interest and set up custom news watches based on keywords. You can customize the way feeds are organized and displayed, and even download podcasts and have them automatically show up on a connected audio player.
If you'd rather not commit to a full-blown RSS-aggregation application — say, if you subscribe to only a few feeds — you have several other options. Internet Explorer 7, for example, lets you easily subscribe to feeds from the sites you visit. Simply click on the "subscribe" button in the browser, and the link gets added to IE7's Favorites Center.
Other browsers, too, offer this capability (in fact, IE was late to the RSS party). Mozilla's Firefox 2 automatically detects when a site has an RSS feed available, and lets you add it to your bookmarks. And a raft of Firefox add-ons (such as Sage and RSS Ticker) delivers even more functionality in managing RSS content.
If you live your business life in Outlook, it might be more natural and convenient to add RSS capabilities to your e-mail client. Outlook 2007 added RSS support as a prominent new feature, letting you subscribe to and retrieve RSS feeds directly from within Outlook. If you are among the millions who still use an older version of Outlook, NewsGator has you covered. NewsGator Inbox for Microsoft Outlook ($29.95) lets you track and manage feeds from within Outlook, just like e-mail.
Online RSS Access
Don't want to install even a plug-in? Well, you can still play in the RSS sandbox. A host of online services let you set up an account and then juggle your RSS subscriptions, without ever downloading or installing a thing to your PC. An online service is the way to go if you use multiple computers or sometimes need to access your RSS feeds from PC other than your own.
One of the best (and most popular) online RSS aggregators is Bloglines from IAC Search & Media. This free service features an intuitive two-pane interface, with your list of feeds on the left and the latest content from a selected provider in the larger reading pane.
You can search Web articles and blogs, share your favorites with others, and even publish your own blog. Bloglines will show you the most popular feeds (with short descriptions) which makes getting started or finding new feeds a snap. You can also "clip" an article for viewing at a later time.
Bloglines, an RSS feed aggregator, takes the content you want from all over the Internet and collects it in one place and makes it easy for you to stay on top of what you need to know.
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Similarly, the new (and also free) NewsGatorOnline service is a Web-based RSS aggregator. It mimics the company's desktop FeedDemon utility and delivers RSS feeds in a clean, uncluttered user interface that lets you organize feeds however you'd like. It also includes the FeedStation feature found in the company's FeedDemon product for subscribing to podcasts.
If your business depends on gathering information and disseminating it internally, NewsGator Technologies also offers NewsGator Enterprise On-Demand. This Web-based RSS solution, targeted at small- and mid-sized businesses, lets you collect, read, distribute, and organize external content about one or multiple subjects. The product's Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model minimizes IT involvement.
RSS on the Go
Not only don't you need desktop software to get RSS feeds anymore, you don't even need a desktop. It just takes a smartphone, BlackBerry, or other RSS-capable device, and you can receive and read RSS feeds wherever you have connectivity.
Bloglines, for example, offers Bloglines mobile, which optimizes your Bloglines content for the (usually) lower data rate and display abilities of a mobile device. And NewsGator offers its NewsGator Go utilities ($29.95; available for BlackBerry, Java-powered mobile phones, and Windows Mobile smartphones) so you can track and manage RSS content on your mobile device of choice. The software intelligently manages feeds based on the connection speed and display characteristics of your device, and it synchronizes with your desktop NewsGator client, so if you read a new entry on your mobile device, it shows as read on your desktop.
With the range of RSS options currently available staying on top of important business information is easier than ever. And if you happen to set up one measly little feed from NYMets.com, no one will blame you. It is their year, after all.
This article was first published on Small Business Computing.