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Magazines > Online > Jan/Feb 2005
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Vol. 29 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2005

On The Net
Revisiting Past Technologies
By Greg R. Notess
Reference Librarian Montana State University

It is always a guessing game as to which online technologies and products will succeed and which will fail. As an ONLINE columnist, I constantly watch the various Internet-related news that I think might be of interest to information professionals. The latest public relations campaign for any commercial product (and even many free ones) tends to overstate the impact and promise not-quite-yet released features. In general, PR departments promote as the latest killer application something that is more than likely to die itself in the next year or two.

Yet sometimes, technologies come along that slowly, over an extended period, cause a shift in our use of the Internet and our own information seeking habits. For that reason, it is worth revisiting some older technologies once in awhile to see which have lasted, improved, and managed over time to build a niche for themselves

This month I am revisiting a variety of technologies from previous columns to see which have changed my online habits and which have not. From browsers to toolbars to bookmarklets to RSS, technologies on the Web can alter the way in which we interact with that huge information space we call the Web.

OTHER WEB BROWSERS

When I last wrote about Web browsers ("Browser Diversity," July/August 2001), Mozilla had yet to release its browser out of beta and the Firefox name had not yet appeared. The Mozilla browser suite has been in full release since June 2002 and has been building market share. Meanwhile, even before the full release of Mozilla's stand-alone Firefox browser, scheduled for late 2004, it has also been building momentum and has been downloaded millions of times.

The past few months have seen the first small decline in Internet Explorer's market share for many years. Several reasons have influenced the shift. First of all, Internet Explorer's security flaws have been widely publicized, along with the recommendation to switch to another browser for better security. Great improvements to speed and reliability and compelling new features (such as pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing) that the Mozilla suite and Mozilla Firefox offer have been another incentive. Plus, most Web sites will display equally well in a Mozilla browser as in Internet Explorer.

The pop-up blocking, tabbed browsing, and several other features have made me a confirmed Mozilla user for the past several years. The ability to increase all nongraphic font sizes has been quite useful in teaching, giving presentations, and helping the visually impaired. While pop-up blocking is available from Internet Explorer on Windows XP SP2 and for other Windows versions by using various toolbars, Mozilla has more capabilities. With the Adblock add-on [http://adblock.mozdev.org], even Flash ads and iframe ads can be blocked. Tabbed browsing lets the multitasking information seeker open up many different Web pages all in the same window.

Since all these features are available in both the Mozilla suite and Mozilla Firefox, which browser should you try? For those who want the suite of applications, including the Mozilla e-mail client, Composer for Web page editing, or the ChatZilla IRC chat client, the Mozilla suite is more appropriate. Firefox is just a Web browser. Without the other applications, it tends to load faster. Firefox has fewer options than Mozilla, but it also has some unique features, including the Live Bookmarks for RSS feeds. If you are still using only Internet Explorer for Web browsing, take some time to try out either Mozilla or Firefox.

TOOLBARS

Just last year, in the January/February 2004 ONLINE, I wrote about the flood of toolbars search companies and others were launching. Most of these toolbars work only with Internet Explorer, and each additional one takes up screen space. Thus, most users will keep no more than a few toolbars. However, it should come as no surprise that, since I generally use Mozilla, toolbars are one technology I have not yet adopted. I did add the Yahoo! toolbar to Internet Explorer to suppress pop-ups, as well as its Anti-Spy button for a quick spyware and adware scan.

The idea of a toolbar providing quick access to frequently visited sites and frequently used functions is certainly a good one. Unfortunately, most toolbars center all shortcuts around just one company's products and services (as with the Google, Yahoo!, and Ask Jeeves toolbars). For those who would like to use multiple sites and functions, it either requires multiple toolbars or a different approach. For now, the personal toolbar (called the Links toolbar in Internet Explorer or the Bookmarks toolbar in Firefox) has begun to fulfill that function. The Mozilla browser has a personal toolbar above the five tabs. By using cryptically short names for the bookmarks on the personal toolbar, even more can be crammed in up there. But rather than just using bookmarks, it is the bookmarklet technology which dominates on the personal toolbar.

BOOKMARKLETS

Bookmarklets have been around for years. When I looked at them many years ago, in the days of Netscape's dominance, I did not see any that were compelling for my browsing habits. It was not until reading about Jon Udell's library lookup bookmarklets that I got interested in them again. After further research into their various uses, I wrote in July/August 2003 on "Bookmarklets, Favelets, and Keymarks: Shortcuts Galore."

Since that time, I have begun using bookmarklets more frequently. I added a list of the ones I find most useful to my Web site [www.searchengineshowdown.com/bmlets]. For my Web browsing, it has not been the library lookup bookmarklets that get frequent use. Instead, it is a collection of the search engine and display bookmarklets. Those that quickly switch from search engine results to another search engine and those that take select text on a Web page and send it to a search engine can expedite the search process. Others change the display and make some hard-to-read Web pages legible.

From a page of Google search results, displayed in the Mozilla browser, one click retrieves a page of Yahoo! results for the same search (the @Y one). One more click, and a page of Teoma results appears (@T). From another search engine, the @g finds the Google results with a single click. When a Web page uses a small font size on a similarly colored background or has animated Flash advertisements, simply clicking a zap bookmarklet makes the page easily readable.

As their usefulness increases, simply placing several bookmarklets directly on the personal toolbar means they are always quickly accessible. To make more room on the toolbar, give them shorter names. The transfer search bookmarklets were renamed from something like @Yahoo! to just @Y, or the Google Site Search bookmarklet could become g site, making more room available to add others.

RSS AND SITE SYNDICATION

RSS has certainly been a technology increasingly mentioned at conferences and in the press. Whether standing for Rich Site Summaries or Really Simple Syndication, RSS is another technology from the good old Netscape days. Others had been promoting its benefits for years before I wrote my "RSS, Aggregators, and Reading the Blog Fan-tastic" column (November/December 2002.) Yet for about a year after that column, and after trying several RSS newsreaders, I still rarely used them. Every once in a while I would try them one again, but nothing really caught my attention.

Part of the problem, given my personal Web use patterns, was the need to use another program for RSS reading. Most of my online time is spent with a browser (or two) open in addition to my e-mail program. I just did not have the need to constantly check for new postings and news stories at the various blogs and news sites in my fields of interest.

In addition, there has been further confusion of standards. Which version of RSS is the best? Various sites use widely different versions: RSS 0.90, 0.91, 0.92, 0.93, 0.94, 1.0, and 2.0 have some significant differences. More recently, Google's Blogger (whose blogs often appear under a blogspot.com domain) has moved to a related but different standard called Atom [www.atomenabled.org]. All types of RSS and Atom are Syndication formats, and fortunately, most well-maintained aggregators like Bloglines should handle all the RSS versions and Atom feeds equally well.

It was not until I tried Bloglines [www.bloglines.com], one of several Web-based news aggregators, that I finally turned the corner. Bloglines is a free service for reading newsfeeds, blogs, and even e-mail lists. It does require users to establish a free account.

Since Bloglines is an online aggregator, the same account can be used at home, at work, or on the road. One great advantage to an aggregator such as Bloglines is that it keeps track of which items it has displayed. So if you don't check in for a day (or week or more), when you do look again, each feed has the number of items that have not yet been displayed. Like other aggregators, Bloglines helps avoid wasted time re-reading old news, and it lets the reader decide when to view each feed and each posting.

Other useful features have been introduced over the years. Users can divide feeds into user-specified categories. Each posting has a "Clip/Blog This," which lets users either keep a posting in their clippings folder or post it to their own blog. Users can e-mail posts to others (or themselves), and the procrastinator's friend, a "Keep New" check box, makes a posting continue to display as unread.

Bloglines includes several search options, such as searching all the syndicated feeds it tracks (even without registration). For those who have set up individual subscriptions, a "Search My Subscriptions" can be used. One use of these abilities is to set up a separate category for feeds just for searching. These can be feeds that may not be read every day, or at all. The advantage to having them listed is that the feeds will then be included in the "Search My Subscriptions" search option. It is a simple way to create a customized search of specific news sources and RSS feeds.

Syndication and an aggregator can be a great combination. Certainly, in the two years since my first RSS column, it seems that more and more conference speakers are talking about RSS. But be warned. Conference speakers and writers may tend to try and follow news much more closely than the average surfer. Most audience members are still not using RSS readers on a regular basis. While it is wise to be aware of such trends, news aggregators work best for those who like to check specific news sites and blogs on a frequent basis. Do you visit news sites, blogs, or any other site with site syndication available on a daily basis? Then by all means try Bloglines or another aggregator. Too busy for the daily approach? Prefer to catch up on the news once every month or so? Read ONLINE, what else! Seriously, for many busy information professionals, a syndication aggregator is not yet essential.

Another midway approach is to use the RSS reader at My Yahoo!. Add RSS (or Atom) feeds to a personalized My Yahoo! page, and the top few listings appear. Instead of listing all items in a feed, only the most recent are shown. With this approach, you can read syndicated feeds, talk about RSS with others, without having to spend as much time trying to keep up with a full type aggregator.

THE VERDICTS

Consider revisiting technologies from the past. While 4 years ago switching browsers may not have been tempting, the current crop from Mozilla have some compelling advantages. Revisiting toolbars, on the other hand, still failed to convince me to make them a regular part of my Internet tools. Bookmarklets have proved extremely useful, greatly speeding up some tasks and making many Web pages much easier to read.

RSS and the capabilities of syndicated content are important for information professionals, at least for an understanding of what kind of information is disseminated via RSS and Atom feeds. Subscribing to some feeds in Bloglines or My Yahoo! is an easy way to sample RSS, and for those who frequent numerous news sites each day, these tools can be a real time saver.

Trying out both new and old Internet technologies can be time consuming. Many fail to live up to the hype, and what works great for one user leaves their neighbor cold. But every once in a while you can find some tools that can change for the better the way you use the Web.


Greg NotessGreg R. Notess (greg@notess.com; www.notess.com) is a reference librarian at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com

Comments? Email the editor at marydee@infotoday.com

 


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