RSS Feed Readers For GNOME
Weblogs and other internet sites deliver news on nearly a daily basis. Steven Garrity looks at RSS feed readers for GNOME, so you won’t miss a single item.
What is RSS?
For those that live in the world of weblogs, RSS feeds have become ubiquitous to the point of disappearing from view. No one asks if you have an RSS feed for your weblog. If you have a weblog, it is assumed that you have an RSS feed. For the rest of the world, RSS may still be just another acronym.
Without getting into the history of RSS, it is simply an XML-based format that can be used to syndicate information. The most common use of RSS feeds is between weblog publishers and their readers (often the same group of people reading each others weblogs). Most weblog systems automatically publish recent posts and reader comments in an RSS format. A variety of desktop or server-side web applications then aggregate these feeds and present them to the user – often in a format that looks a bit like a traditional email client.
There are a few variations of the RSS specification, and a competing format called Atom. While it might be a mess for developers, most news readers seem to handle most of the various formats.
Why Use RSS?
If you do read weblogs, RSS can become an indispensable way of keeping up with them. It can be especially helpful for weblogs that are only updated occasionally. If someone only posts once a month, you need not check back every few days to see if there is anything new – your RSS reader will let you know.
Don’t care about weblogs? RSS is starting to be used in other ways as well. Still in the realm of weblogs, it has become a great way to keep up on the world of open-source projects. Several significant projects have setup what are called “Planet” sites. These sites are effectively group weblogs, aggregated (using RSS) from the individual weblogs of those that contribute to and write about the project. Planet GNOME and Planet Mozilla are two popular examples, but there are many more.
With these planet sites, you can subscribe to one RSS feed and keep up on the development progress of an entire project community, rather than finding and subscribing to a slew of individual feeds.
Still don’t care about weblogs? Most traditional news sites, like Yahoo News, MSNBC, The New York Times, and BBC News are now publishing dozens of RSS feeds for each different topic they cover. Many Wiki implementations are providing RSS feeds that can be used to track changes to Wikis – something that proved a great help in the planning and organization of the GNOME Summit in Boston in the Fall of 2004. RSS is even starting to be used by developers to track bugzilla and CVS changes.
A Selection of RSS Readers for GNOME
Note that this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all RSS readers available for GNOME. Rather, this is a selection of applications that I found to be useful and promising. There are others. It should also be noted that all of these applications, while generally stable enough for daily use, are still under regular development.
Straw is an RSS reader designed specifically for GNOME. It was my primary RSS reading application until recently (more on that shortly). Written in Python, Straw is deliberately simple, providing a traditional three-pane interface and relying on native Gtk and GNOME technologies.
My greatest complaint about Straw was performance. While I did not do any benchmarking, I generally found the application to be sluggish and unresponsive. However, reading RSS feeds isn’t something that demands a lot of speed, so Straw remains a usable and capable RSS reader for GNOME.
Perhaps the most complete and comprehensive RSS reader available for GNOME to date, Liferea recently became my default reader. While it does seem to offer a wider set of features than some of the alternatives, reading RSS feeds is a simple enough activity that additional features aren’t always a plus. That said, Liferea is not feature-laden to the point of bloat. The application feels responsive and complete.
Like Straw, Liferea also uses the traditional three-pane interface but also includes collapsible groups for feeds in the left pane. This can be particularly handy if you keep track of a large number of feeds.
Blam! is one of the newer RSS readers to become available for GNOME. As such, it has a ways to go before it provides a complete and polished user experience. For example, Blam! does not include any means of grouping or categorizing feeds. That said, based on the application so far, I can easily see Blam! becoming a strong RSS reader available for GNOME.
The greatest hurdle to the adoption of Blam! (in addition to the unfortunate inclusion of an exclamation mark in its name) is that it is built on Ximian/Novell’s Mono development platform. For distributions like Foresight Linux, Mono is included by default. However, this could remain a large hurdle for users of other distributions.
The Email Client / Web Browser Option
Since RSS readers often present feeds and posts in the three-pane view often used in email clients, some email clients have naturally extended their capabilities to include RSS reading. While there was some RSS support in the 1.x series of the popular Evolution email/calendar/contact application, the recent 2.x release of Evolution has removed the RSS module. It is possible that Evolution 2.0 will be extended to include RSS support at some point again in the future.
Another promising email client, Mozilla’s Thunderbird, has recently gained RSS support. While Thunderbird is also available for Windows and Mac OS X, it runs quite comfortably along side other GNOME applications. The RSS functionality included in Thunderbird is relatively new, and not yet complete. However, since many of the aspects of an RSS reader, such as the three-pane layout, are already available in an email client, I expect the feature set to round out quickly.
The popular Firefox web browser was also endowed with some RSS reading capabilities late in the development cycle leading up to its 1.0 release. The RSS capabilities in Firefox come in a simpler form than most full-fledged RSS readers in a tool called Live Bookmark. This feature enables the bookmarking of RSS feeds in a manner that displays the recent items from the feed in your Bookmarks menu. There are also several Firefox extensions that provide RSS reading functionality integrated inside the browser.
There are options for reading RSS feeds beyond traditional desktop applications. Several web-based RSS readers have become quite powerful and quite popular. These can be particularly useful if you want to access your RSS feeds from several different computers.
Kinja is a simple web-based RSS aggregator that works comfortably in any web browser. Bloglines is probably the most popular and powerful of the web-based RSS readers. Some of the desktop applications are exploring tying into Bloglines web-services API to keep your feeds in sync between your Bloglines account and your local RSS reading desktop applications. This would be particularly useful for those that want to use a native GNOME desktop RSS reader on their primary computer, but still access their feeds remotly via the Bloglines service occasionally.
While the most visible RSS readers on the web are native Windows and Mac OS application (NetNewsWire, FeedDemon, and others), there are a variety of good native Gtk and GNOME options available. Though most of the popular Linux distributions don’t yet include an RSS reader as part of the default desktop setup, the applications mentioned here are easy to find and install for most distributions. All of these applications are maturing quickly and should meet the needs of most people.
Copyright © 2005; Steven Garrity