Joel Katz, a staff engineer at Affymetrix in Bedford, MA, uses MATLAB, a math analysis software tool for engineers developed by MathWorks. Constantly on the lookout for new ways to cope with matrix math—which all engineers know is brutally complicated—he views the MATLAB central file exchange site as a critical resource.
"The file exchange is enormously helpful, because other MATLAB users are working on the same problems as I am, and many of them have developed reusable code that I can download," Katz explains. "But without going to the site every day—which I am way too busy to do—I had no easy way of knowing when somebody submitted something new."
Now Katz no longer has to go hunt for new content on the site, because the site's new content is coming automatically to him.
Five months ago he signed up for an RSS feed—joining the 5 percent of Web users who say they use them—on MATLAB Central. One of the fastest growing technologies for distributing content on the Web, RSS feeds are big, and getting bigger.
RSS—an acronym that stands for Really Simple Syndication—is an XML-based distribution platform for online content that allows a website to aggregate all new content as an XML file, usually as a headline or short abstract—into a feed.
Like a ticker tape for the Web, RSS feeds deliver headlines of all the latest postings on a website directly to the subscriber's desktop, saving repeated visits to the site to check for new content
To subscribe to and view these feeds, all a user needs is a desktop newsreader. It searches the website for the latest headlines, then publishes them in whatever frequency or time interval the user specifies. Though different newsreaders work in different ways most are free and they are all getting easier to use (some are now even integrated into the latest versions of some browsers, such as Mozilla's Firefox). And most websites, including MathWorks, offer easy, step-by-step instructions on how to subscribe to their RSS feeds.
In fact, increased ease-of-use is one factor cited for the growing proliferation of RSS feeds. Traditional news services and media (including this magazine) and bloggers early on grasped the power of RSS feeds to easily syndicate their content to a wide audience. Now other types of content providers are jumping on the bandwagon. According to the online news aggregator Bloglines, its members subscribe to some 1.12 million feeds on a variety of topics ranging from sports to adult entertainment.
In order to more precisely target users' interests, some sites offer multiple feeds—segmenting their content by category. ESPN, for example, offers nine different RSS feeds from "NFL headlines" to "NHL headlines." Similarly, Design News readers can sign up for several different RSS feeds, including one that aggregates headlines from the current issue and one for web-exclusive content.
MathWorks introduced five RSS feeds in September 2004, including the one that Katz signed up for to get headlines of the most recent files in the MATLAB Central File Exchange. MATLAB aficionados can also sign up feeds for newsletters and the most active threads from MATLAB newsgroups, as well as a "Pick of the Week" from the Central File Exchange.
The blog "Pick of the Week" (and companion RSS feed) was created by MathWorks Applica-tion Engineers Scott Hirsch and Doug Hull in January 2004, at the suggestion of a MATLAB user who thought it would be cool to get the best post of the week in his feed. As MATLAB experts themselves, Hirsh and Hull are uniquely qualified to cull through the five to 20 files that are submitted daily, and then select and comment on the most notable.
Earlier this year, National Instruments—the test and measurment company—also launched RSS feeds in conjunction with several blogs authored by NI software engineers. Though NI was not able to provide reporting statistics, Media Relations Spokesperson Tiffany Morrison says the response from engineers has been great. "Love the NI blogs," was a typical response.
As for how many engineers have signed up for MathWorks' RSS feeds, the company says it does not know and in fact part of what is appealing about RSS feeds for customers is that there is no record of who actually registers. MathWorks does monitor feed hits, though, and says that in January 2005 its site logged 20,000 feed hits. That number had climbed to 50,000 per month in June 2005. While this is not a true measure of readership—programs that automatically check the feed as often as once an hour will count as a hit and do not count as an actual customer hit—the overall trend points to an increase in activity.
Although MATLAB user Katz sees RSS feeds as an invaluable time saver for a busy engineer, so far they have yet to catch on big in the design engineering world. Of the 20 or so feeds he now subscribes to, most of them relate to news, gadgets, and programming for the Mac.
"The technology is really very cool. Today I found an article directly relating to my company's business through an RSS feed. I probably never would have known about it otherwise," says Katz. "I would love it if more of the engineering websites I visit set up RSS feeds for their engineering content."