Column

RSS news feeds can ease email burden

Paul Gillin
If you're an IT professional, chances are good that email is a big part of your everyday routine. Whether it's email administration, daily communication or project management, email is a technology you can't live without.

But email is terrible for project management. If you've ever used it on a project with more than a few participants, you know what I mean. Have you ever been caught in one of those volleys in which two people have a conversation while 10 others are copied on every exchange, just because they happen to be on a mailing list?

Email is a great way for two or three people to get something done, but a lousy way for five people or more to collaborate. Unfortunately, people tend to use the tools they've got. They force email to work in collaborative applications, even though it was never intended for that.

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If you're an email administrator or if you support large group projects, you should become familiar with Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds. They're great tools with a regrettably geeky reputation. Unless you live under a rock, you've probably heard of RSS news feeds. Perhaps you even use them to keep track of some news sites or blogs you favor. But the potential for RSS inside organizations is much greater than that.

RSS is a publish-and-subscribe technology. It delivers a regularly updated stream of information -- a feed -- that enables the subscriber to get very specific information. You could subscribe to Paul Gillin and get every pontification I create. Only you don't have to subscribe to everything I write. You can choose to receive only what I have to say about the small and medium-sized business (SMB) market or open source software or blogs or the Boston Red Sox, for that matter.

New collaborative tools like blogs and wikis support RSS natively, making it possible for readers to choose to receive information about only selected topics. So instead of updating everyone on a project by email, you post blog or wiki entries and have updates sent automatically to people who subscribe to them.

RSS news feeds are such an effective alternative to email because they enable the user to choose. Take the example I cited at the top. What if, instead of email, the people engaging in the discussion could post comments to a collaborative wiki? Subscribers to the wiki could use RSS feeds to choose to see only information related to that aspect of the project that interested them. They wouldn't even be aware of discussions they didn't want to know about.

RSS also gives readers the power to unsubscribe, which comes in handy when people come and go on a project. How many times have you continued to receive email strings about a project in which you were no longer involved? The only way to get off of those threads is to ask every participant to remove you from the mailing list. But with RSS, you simply delete the feed.

Really Simple Syndication is not widely known outside the tech world, mainly because it is rather difficult to use. People have had to copy unintelligible URLs into dedicated feed readers and the whole thing was kind of scary for end users. However, that's changing fast.

Microsoft's next-generation operating system, Windows Vista, promises to handle RSS news feeds much more elegantly than Windows XP. Products like NewsGator integrate RSS feeds seamlessly into an email client. There are open source products that do the same thing. People are comfortable with their inbox, and there's no reason they should have to leave it. RSS feeds can be delivered just like email -- email the user actually wants to receive, rather than email someone else wants to send.

For SMBs, RSS will become an invaluable tool to simplify project management. It's a good idea to learn all you can right now.

Paul Gillin is a technology writer and consultant and former editor-in-chief of TechTarget. Contact him at www.gillin.com.


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