This week’s Pogue’s Post
Apple’s New Browser
In today’s Times, I reviewed Mac OS X 10.4, better known as Tiger, Apple’s latest Macintosh system software. Now, with what Apple counts as 200 features, I can only cover so much in the paper. There’s one feature that I mentioned in passing, though, that deserves more elaboration: Safari and RSS.
RSS (an acronym for “Rich Site Summary” and later coined “Really Simple Syndication”) is a system of, well, Web-site broadcasting. Once you’ve signed up to receive an RSS feed (broadcast) from, say, NYTimes.com, your RSS-reading software displays the headlines as a sort of live, constantly updated table of contents.
There’s so much great information on the Web, from news to Web logs (blogs) on specialized topics. Trouble is, once you accumulate a few favorite Web sites containing interesting things, you either go crazy trying to visit them all every day to see when new stuff has been posted, or you give up, overwhelmed, and miss out on stories you would have cared about. The beauty of the RSS system is that it lets the good stuff come to you, organized in tidy digest form, free of spam and ads.
That’s great and all, but there’s a loaded phrase in that description: “your RSS-reading software.” Fact is, most people don’t have such a program, don’t know where to get one, and wouldn’t know how to use it. At the moment, therefore, RSS reading is a privilege reserved for the technically proficient.
Apple has turned Safari, the Mac OS X Web browser, into an RSS reader. Combining RSS with the browser makes overwhelming sense, because you don’t have to flip back and forth between the headlines in one program and the full articles in your Web browser. (Firefox, an outstanding free browser for Windows, Macintosh and Linux, integrates RSS feeds in a very similar way, although without as much flexibility as what you’re about to read.)
Here’s how life with Safari works. Any time you see an RSS logo appear in the address bar, Safari is telling you that you’ve stumbled onto a Web page that offers an RSS feed. (That’s handy, because it’s not always easy to tell if a page does or not.) Of course, you can also seek out RSS sites using Web sites like Feedster.com and Technorati.com.
If you click the RSS button, you enter Safari’s RSS-reading view: a scrolling “front page” containing all of the tidbits (articles, blog entries) from that Web page. A clever Article Length slider expands or shrinks all entries simultaneously, from full-length articles, with photos, to headlines only. Searching and sorting controls await at the right side.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Exactly as in Firefox, you can bookmark this RSS feed. From now on, your Bookmarks menu (or Bookmarks bar) lets you know how many new articles have been published on the Web site you subscribed to — you’ll see, for example, “NYtimes.com (7)” — so you don’t waste time visiting pages where there’s nothing new.
If you drag several of these bookmarks into a single bookmark folder — because they’re all on one related topic, like tech gadgets — you gain a new option: a View All RSS Articles command that sprouts from that folder. Now ALL of your RSS subscriptions appear on a single, neatly consolidated page. On my Safari bookmark bar, for example, I have a folder called Tech that shows me, at a glance, all the new entries from Engadget, Gizmodo, NYTimes.com and, of course, my own Pogue’s Posts — all on a single page.
But wait, there’s more! Suppose you now search this master page for something that interests you: “Treo,” or “HDTV,” or whatever. Safari hides all entries except those that match — and now you can bookmark THIS page.
In essence, you’ve now built yourself a self-updating, personal clipping service. With one click, you make Safari display all the articles, from the Web sites you consider relevant, that pertain to a topic that interests you. It’s a fantastic way to keep tabs on a sports team, movie star, company or whatever.
There’s a lot of other good stuff in Safari. You can save an entire page as a single file on your hard drive (yes, I know other browsers have had this for years); parental controls limit your young account holders to certain Web sites; and you can e-mail any Web page to anyone, with all text and graphics intact.
But I have to admit that it’s Safari’s RSS feature that has changed my daily routine the most. It’s turned me into a fan of RSS — something that, because of the hassle and overhead, I never stuck with before.
Visit David Pogue on the Web at DavidPogue.com.