Introducing Aunt Tillie to RSS

This morning a story on RSS newsreaders appeared in the Personal Tech section of my local paper. The title was A simple program to 'refresh' the news; the byline was The Washington Post. I'm keenly interested in how the story of RSS is being told to Aunt Tillie, so I deconstructed this one with some care.

The first order of business was to find the article online so I could quote from it, and cite the URL in this posting. I went to, registered, and searched for the phrase "inefficient bundle of code"; we'll get to why I used that search in a moment.

The Washington Post is evidently even more restrictive than the New York Times. This two-week-old story is already parked behind the costwall, where you're asked to buy it for $2.95. No thanks. I did, however, learn that the original title was Refining Paperless News, and that the author was Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols.

When I'm looking for costwalled New York Times stories, I've noticed that you can often find them for free elsewhere. Sure enough, a Google search for "inefficient bundle of code" landed me here.

A couple of points in the article caught my eye. Exhibit A:

RSSReader (Win 98 or newer, free at leaves out FeedDemon's price tag, but also its performance. It was easily the slowest newsreader we tried -- partially because it runs on Microsoft's .Net Framework, an inefficient bundle of code [emphasis mine] that lets developers add Web functions to their software. [Refining Paperless News (]
When I think of the many ways one could introduce Aunt Tillie to the .NET Framework, "inefficient bundle of code that lets developers add Web functions to their software" seems an odd choice. If Aunt Tillie knew that Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writes the endpage for Linux Magazine and edits the Linux and Open Source Topic Center for, it might help her to contextualize this remark.

I don't, by the way, entirely disagree with Vaughan-Nichols. Although I think he overplays the ".NET is slow" card here -- using it three times -- this is a real issue that will dog client-side .NET in the same way, and for the same reasons, that it has dogged client-side Java. But that's way more software-industry inside baseball than Aunt Tillie needs here, if the point of the article is to introduce her to the fundamental concepts and benefits of RSS, and acquaint her with the kinds of tools available for reading feeds.

Exhibit B:

Unfortunately, you can't just click that button to subscribe. You must right-click it -- on a Mac, hold down the Ctrl key as you click -- to copy the link's address, then paste it into your newsreader. [Refining Paperless News (]
Spot on. This is a huge roadblock for Aunt Tillie, as I've said repeatedly. We gotta fix this.

Exhibit C:

ADC Software's NewzCrawler (Win 95 or newer, $25 at is perhaps the most flexible newsreader around. Beyond RSS, this fast, easily customizable program also collects and presents newsfeeds delivered with a newer protocol called Atom and postings from Usenet newsgroups.
Delivering Usenet postings is a clear benefit. It means you get more and different content than you'd get from RSS. What about Atom? Does this "newer protocol" also deliver more and different content than you'd get with RSS, or from Usenet? Clearly my own biases are showing here, but my answer is a resounding no. I've long argued that the last thing Aunt Tillie needs, just as she's becoming aware of the concept of syndication, is to get smacked in the face with our RSS-vs-Atom dirty laundry.

One final observation. The article focused entirely on a single species of RSS newsreader: the standalone GUI program. If Aunt Tillie happens to be reading email in Outlook, she ought to have been made aware of the Newsgator option. An even more glaring omission was Nowadays when RSS newbies ask me which reader to use, I point them to bloglines; it's the perfect quickstart. I tell folks they can deal with selecting, installing, and learning to use a "real" newsreader after they've gotten a taste of what RSS newsreading is all about. I don't tell them the reasons why, for certain advanced users of RSS, bloglines winds up being the "real" solution. That's too much information for an elevator pitch. However in an article of this length, which mentions Atom and harps on the performance of the .NET runtime, I think Aunt Tillie should have been told that Web-based readers exist, require no installation, can be used from anywhere, and are always synchronized.

My point here isn't to pillory Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, whose work I've known and respected for a long time. All of us who belong to the geek tribe -- myself included -- tend to focus on our issues, not the issues that will matter most to Aunt Tillie. But we're the gatekeepers of this story. As syndication goes mainstream, we're the ones who'll be asked to explain it to Aunt Tillie. Here's hoping we can all put the geek stuff in its place and tell her what she really needs to know.

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