Once upon a time, there was a company called Netscape who was investigating a new market: portal sites and content syndication. The idea was simple: a variety of websites produce relevant content in a (nearly) continuous flow. Portals would be designed to aggregate news and content from those sites and present it to the user all in one page...
Thus, Netscape invented a format called RSS, which stood for "Remote Site Syndication". This spec allows content producers to publish their news/content in an "RSS feed" (an XML based document) and content consumers to periodically check those feeds for updates.
When Netscape lost interest in developing portals, they abandonned their original (and complex) RSS 0.9 spec as well as their efforts in creating a more appropriate and simpler version. At that time, UserLand picked up the simpler 0.91 spec and applied it to its blog tools. RSS had become "Really Simple Syndication".
Today, the blogging community still uses RSS extensively: every blogger publishes an RSS feed of his posts and readers aggregate all their favorites blogs' feeds in an aggregator. This, of course, makes it more convenient to check for new posts daily on all your favorite blogs...
Then, the story gets more and more complicated...
UserLand started improving on RSS 0.91 which actually was a little bit too simple. That led to RSS 0.92, 0.93, 0.94...
But another group had started working on a successor to RSS 0.9 when Netscape dropped it. This group was more concerned with completeness than with simplicity. The result of their work has been released as RSS 1.0. This format is based on RDF and is so complex that UserLand decided to go on with its own branch and finally released RSS 2.0... which is a successor to RSS 0.94, not RSS 1.0 !
This is why we have so many different RSS formats in use today. :-/
In an effort to make everybody happy and focus on a single syndication format, a new group has been created to work on a new format called Atom. This new format, currently at version 0.3, is full of promises... but it is too early to tell if it will finally be the one and only syndication spec, accepted by all... Let's hope so. ;)
Comments from long ago:
Comment from: Travis Swicegood
You can’t say that “every blogger publishes an RSS feed”. I can’t count the number of sites here in the US that don’t have a feed. The ones that are really bad about this are the personal sites. When I moved to KC, I started trying to find local blogs to help me get an idea as to what was going on in the city and probably 70% of the sites have no feed at all. Once you get used to using feeds to keep up-to-date, it’s actually quite annoying to go to site that doesn’t have one.
Comment from: François PLANQUE
For a less technical overview, you might want to read this article from Slate: How To Speed-Read the Net
Comment from: Wheely-bin.co.uk
RSSWell, i’m writing an RSS/RDF/ATOM parser atm,
and i have to say francois has helped enliten me on why theres like 4 formats, which is most annoying
Comment from: mark
Thanks for clering this up i have always wondered what an rss feed was :D
Comment from: Fred
A brief history about RSS feeds: http://www.xml.com/pub/a/2002/12/18/dive-into-xml.html
Comment from: Russell Savige
I find that while most sites have an RSS feed, the link to it is very hard to find, often being at the bottom of the menu, or even completely at the bottom of the page.
I think this is because the blog owners don’t know what an RSS feed is, or that they even have one.
Comment from: TCM
I’ve found SAGE to be a great feedreader (aggregator) for those of us who use Firefox - it integrates smoothly with the browser and can search a site for any recognised feed just by clicking a button. Nice and easy!
Nice explanation on the history of feeds BTW.
Comment from: elkyle
Personally, I use Mozilla Thunderbird (http://www.mozilla.org/products/thunderbird/), a email/rss/newsgroup reader that is a companion program to Firefox (http://www.getfirefox.com/). Like Firefox, it is both free and open source, and (IMHO) a much better alternative to Outlook Express. I used to use OE, but then needed to access an IMAP account, and found OE to be severely lacking in this capability. I took a peek at Eudora, but was turned off by paying for a full version. Then, I found Thunderbird, and I have used it ever since.
Onto another topic, what are the advantages/disadvantages of each type. AFAIK, Thunderbird can handle “anything”, but I would like to know why I would want to (for example), choose an Atom feed over RSS 2.0.