Microsoft's upcoming operating system will make it easier for users to subscribe to online news feeds and for developers to work with those...

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Microsoft’s upcoming operating system will make it easier for users to subscribe to online news feeds and for developers to work with those feeds in creative ways, company officials said yesterday.

Microsoft made the announcement at a conference in Seattle dedicated to new communications technologies. Much of the talk centered on RSS, a system that automates the delivery of Web content to e-mail inboxes and other locations.

RSS is mostly used to distribute postings from news sites and online Web logs to subscribers. When a site is updated with new content, RSS automatically delivers it to them.

Only about 6 million Americans — 5 percent of the country’s online population — subscribe to RSS feeds, according to a January survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit group that studies the impact of the Internet.

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But most attendees at the conference, called Gnomedex, were fully convinced of the technology’s promise. Microsoft was enamored enough to tweak its operating system, code-named Longhorn, to make the underlying structure of RSS technology easier to work with — a move that will undoubtedly push RSS further into the mainstream.

“In Longhorn, the next version of Windows, we are betting big on RSS,” said Dean Hachamovitch, a general manager on the Longhorn team. “We’re betting this particular way because there aren’t enough end users who see it and get it, and it’s not easy enough for them yet.”

Hachamovitch said that in the next version of Internet Explorer, a user who visits a page that has an RSS feed will see a notification button light up on the browser. Clicking a plus symbol in the browser will subscribe to that feed, and the feed will go on an internal subscription list in Longhorn.

What is RSS?

Long ago — in Internet time, at least — the letters stood for a number of phrases, including Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. At any rate, RSS is a system of distributing content from Web logs, online news sites and other places directly to a user. When someone wants to subscribe to a Web site that’s RSS-enabled (often designated by an XML button on the site), the software notes the selection, then scans the subscribed sites at periodic intervals for updates and notifies the user of those updates.

Such a setup makes it ideal for keeping track of news on news sites or new postings on blogs. RSS technology is evolving to deliver online audio broadcasts, called podcasts, and digital images as well.

The internal list will be available to applications that could use the data in new ways, Hachamovitch said.

Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail program, for example, could show in its calendar an RSS feed of a conference schedule, he said. A digital photo manager could build a slide show around an RSS feed from a photo-oriented blog.

Reaction to Hachamovitch’s presentation was decidedly mixed.

“Talk about earthquakes, I think we just saw one here this morning,” said David Sifry, the founder of Technorati, a search engine for blogs, in a panel discussion later in the day.

Other attendees questioned Microsoft’s motivations.

“What you’ve proved to us today is once again, you are establishing Microsoft as the standards-setting organization,” said Bob Wyman, co-founder of PubSub, a New York-based service that tracks online content for users. “Why isn’t Microsoft acting like it is not a Borg instead of continuing to be a Borg?”

Hachamovitch said Microsoft wants to work with the RSS community. The company decided to debut its new RSS tools at Gnomedex and is asking for reaction before launch. In addition, parts of the new technology will be made available for public use under a Creative Commons license, which lifts some copyright restrictions.

“This is very different, I think, from what’s come before,” he said. The new technologies will be in the test versions of Longhorn and Internet Explorer 7.0, which are scheduled to debut this summer.

Other Gnomedex speakers talked about ways to increase RSS usage and involve more content publishers and consumers.

The number of RSS users on Yahoo! has grown significantly since Pew’s study results came out in January, Scott Gatz, the senior director for personalization products at the company, said in an interview. Some people aren’t aware that they are using RSS because Yahoo! often doesn’t use the acronym to describe the feed.

Sometimes people can be intimidated by the technology, Gatz said. Most Yahoo! users are afraid to click on the orange “XML” button on Web sites that signals an RSS feed is available, Gatz said, and when they do click on them they think their browsers are broken.

“The biggest thing is to not overly use the word ‘RSS,’ ” he said.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or