Handling RSS in the browser

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Two things slowing the understanding and adoption of RSS by mainstream consumers are that feeds are rendered as raw XML by the browser, meaning that someone clicking on a feed link gets a lot of code they see as gibberish; and that subscribing to a feed is usually a multi-step process of finding a feed, copying the link, opening up the subscription mechanism of the feed reader, and pasting the link in.

To solve both these problems some feed readers have created buttons that can be placed on a web site for a one-click subscription to that feed in the reader. Instead of getting code when you click it, you get your feed in the feed client. Web-based readers take this a step further in that you don’t even need a reader installed to for the button to do you some good, so anyone who likes your content can easily add it to My Yahoo for instance. This has lead to a proliferation of “Subscribe with X” buttons on some sites (indeed, look at how my feed is rendered in the browser with a stylesheet and you’ll see some of these buttons on the right).

Dave Winer has a problem with this, and rightly so. But his solution is a little heavy-handed. We don’t need some big centralized service (or lots of little centralized services) that process feeds and figure out how to make them work on the end-user’s particular preferred setup.

Jeremy’s right in saying this is a client-side problem, not something that needs to be solved at the server level, but the idea of creating a single helper app that lets people easily add a feed to their preferred aggregator still makes things too complex and shifts the responsibility for improving the user experience away from where it belongs: to the feed client itself.

There’s more than one client that can handle audio files on the Web. When I click an audio file, I don’t get a bunch of code, or some generic server- or client-side helper app figuring out what I want to do with the file. What I get is the audio opening up in Winamp, or Zinf, or Media Player, or whatever is the default player for audio files on my server. This happens because my browser recognizes that the file type it’s downloading has a default action and the OS knows how to open a file in the player. With a PDF, the browser sees a content type of application/pdf and opens the PDF in whatever application the user has installed to handle PDF files. If I have more than one installed, then the default one is used (default generally being whichever one I installed last).

Feed readers need to do the same thing. When I install a desktop reader, the reader should (perhaps optionally) find all the browsers installed on the system and configure them to open files with a content type of application/rss+xml in the reader. The reader then does whatever with it, perhaps showing it to the user and allowing them to subscribe.

Web based readers would need some sort of small install that would redirect that request to them, just as web based mail clients like Gmail need a small program to get mailto: links to open the web mail composition widget.

Of course this would also require that everyone serve RSS as the same content type or for the readers to handle multiple content types. Unfortunately the RSS spec doesn’t specify which content type should be used, so people have made up their own, often different, content types.

People often forget that many of the problems faced by RSS and Atom are not new. They’ve already been solved, so instead of reinventing the wheel we should use the existing standards.

Update: Joe Gregorio has mentioned this before and describes in technical terms how a reader can do exactly this with C# and Windows for Atom. The concepts, however are applicable to and feed format, programming language, and OS.

January 13, 2005 9:25 AM

Not that I *really* want to get sucked into this sort of thing again, but I liked Phil's comment about MP3 playlist URLs: http://www.decafbad.com/blog/2005/01/13/feed_playlists_versus_feed_urls

Michael Baumgarten
January 13, 2005 9:51 AM

I believe that newsreaders and browsers are going to take quite some time before they seemlessly integrate between the browser feed and the news reader. Although I think the solutions that are being presented are within the realm of reason, I think publishers need to face the fact that RSS is not user friendly to the masses. Mostly because the browser isn't as smart as we would like it to be. One of the problems with the mainstream adopting RSS is that you have to give them something they can relate to. I think RSS does have its place in the WWW I just don't believe its consumable yet. One alternative that I believe can bridge the gap for publishers is to use a web service like Website Mailer ( http://www.websitemailer.com/detail.jsp ). The publisher just has a subscribe link like all the other RSS/Atom links, except this time... It points the user to a form that just needs their e-mail. The user then receives the publisher's website in their e-mail inbox. This would at least dumb it down until the public becomes more accustomed to the technology. A nice added accidental feature with this service is that the publisher's ads show up along with the content.

Roger Benningfield
January 13, 2005 10:38 AM

" but for RSS you also need to promote the one true namespaced extension element that points to the feed URL" Phil: We already have at least four or five notable aggregators that can handle RSS+Atom. If we can successfully lobby the hold-outs (Dare and Graham were the most opposed, as I recall) to change their tune, that particular problem solves itself.

Trackback from Jäger
January 13, 2005 2:42 PM

The Yahoo Problem (II)

Excerpt: Leslie "0xDECAFBAD" Orchard writes: But, in the comment above, Phil [ringnalda] makes a suggestion that seems ideal to me. Don't link to feeds directly, don't use a funky protocol, link to a "playlist" of feeds. URLs linking to MP3...

Trackback from 0xDECAFBAD Blog
January 13, 2005 3:38 PM

Feed "Playlists" versus feed:// URLs

Excerpt: Feed playlists. Name it something like `feeds.fss`, and register applications to handle that extension. Give it a MIME-type, and handle that too. Sounds just like M3U and PLS files, to me. Someone tell me why this is a dumb idea.

Trackback from Surfarama
January 13, 2005 5:03 PM

Handling RSS in the browser :: Adam Kalsey

Excerpt: Lots of discussion going on at the moment about the problem with surfacing RSS feeds to unsuspecting readers, ie. for the vast majority of punters raw XML is complete gibberish. This is the problem which FeedForm tries to address (see my feed), alth...

Trackback from Cox Crow
January 14, 2005 1:16 PM

Syndicated Subscription Crapola

Excerpt: I'm going to put my 2 cent foot in my mouth, and state that there is no need for a publisher's clearing house to manage my many subscriptions. This problem is one easily solved by the Spontaneous Integration. A thing exposes a URI. A thing append...

Trackback from The RSS Blog
January 15, 2005 7:31 AM

Handling RSS in the browser

Excerpt: Randy: Adam Kalsey is another believer in the Universal Subscription Mechanism. Phil, that always thinking guy, makes a case in Adam's comments for application/feedlist+xml. Something to watch and another great idea.

January 17, 2005 3:22 PM

Just as browsers are able to route to a local client app, wouldn't it be easy for them to route to a URL?

Randy Charles Morin
January 18, 2005 1:32 PM

I just finished a new draft of the Universal Subscription Mechanism. http://www.kbcafe.com/rss/usm.html

Trackback from The RSS Blog
January 19, 2005 9:57 PM

Universal Subscription Mechanism

Excerpt: Thanks go to Adam Kalsey who did most of the pushing for this solution in his article Handling RSS in the browser

Randy Charles Morin
January 19, 2005 11:46 PM

Peter, The problem is which URL? Can we all agree on one URL? Like we agree on one version of RSS? Not gonna happen.

July 4, 2005 6:55 AM

In Opera 8.01, the RSS shows up as usual, not the way you describe.

Dio Nysios
January 9, 2006 10:30 AM

I linked my Yahoo 360 page to an RSS source, which I now find annoying. I would like to get rid of it, to stop its "feeding" into my page, but I cannot find how to delete the darn thing. I asked Yahoo, but it is no help at all; their answers to my repeated question are all off the mark. Can you help? Thanks, Dio

denis titov
January 24, 2006 9:58 PM

Take a look at my tool http://www.dat-it.com Build-in RSS Client, Internet Explorer toolbar for handling with RSS feeds

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