June 04, 2013

Bye Google Reader, Hello Windows RSS Platform

With the impending demise of iGoogle and Google Reader, which have been set to my web browser's home page for several years now, I had recently come to the realization that I was going to open IE one day and see an error message where iGoogle used to be.  All of my subscribed RSS feeds would be gone.

I did some research to see what kinds of replacements were out there.  For me, RSS feeds provide topics of particular interest that may be worthy of exploring on the web, and my web browser's home page is the gateway to the web; therefore, I wasn't interested in using feed-reader software that runs outside of my browser.  Feeds contain hyperlinks that lead me into the browser, so I might as well read my feeds right on the home page.

It seemed appropriate to begin my research by revisiting the Feeds tab in IE 10.  I had thought perhaps there have been improvements that could make it a viable replacement for Google Reader.  It didn't take long before I realized why I had chosen Google Reader several years ago and never switched to IE's built-in RSS feed support.  Alas, since I have no choice now but to change, I decided to research deeper into this feature of IE and see whether it may be worth using.  There were a few things I really liked about it:

  1. IE automatically detects feeds on web pages and lets you subscribe to them easily via a button on its Command Bar.
  2. IE opens feeds in a special reader allowing you to easily search, sort and filter.  It also provides a link to quickly subscribe or unsubscribe.
  3. IE lets you easily organize your feeds into folders.

I'm sure you'd agree that the integrated experience is a huge plus; however, IE also has a few negatives:

  1. IE doesn't provide a "What's New?" kind of view; i.e., an aggregated view containing all of the latest unread items among all feeds.
  2. IE doesn't provide a way to quickly view a list of items in a selected feed without showing their contents.
  3. IE doesn't provide a way to mark a single item as read/unread.

So it seems that IE has a great story for subscribing to and organizing feeds, though it really lacks in support for interacting with feeds.  The latter is extremely important to me, which is why I had originally chosen iGoogle as my home page for its Google Reader widget.

But the story doesn't end there.  Digging deeper I discovered that IE builds its RSS features on top of a public Windows API called the Windows RSS Platform.   IE merely provides a GUI containing only a subset of the functionality offered by this platform.  That was great news!  I decided to write my own web page against this API.  I could set it as my home page and interact with my RSS feeds easily, similar to the Google Reader experience, while taking advantage of the integration and organizational features built-in to IE.

These were my primary goals:

  1. Implement a stand-alone HTML page.  No server, no external scripts, no external style sheets, no external images.
  2. Target HTML5 in IE 10 (desktop mode only) for Windows 8.
  3. Touch input support.
  4. Use JavaScript to interact with the Windows RSS Platform APIs via Window's built-in ActiveX automation.
  5. Display 3 synchronized panels:
    • Tree view shows all feeds organized into folders, similar to the Feeds tab in IE.
    • Aggregate view containing all of the latest unread items; i.e., "What's New?"
    • Content viewer for the selected item.

I'm happy to report that my project was a success.  I worked on it all last weekend.  I even added several usability features that will hopefully make it appealing to others.  It relies heavily on jQuery, which is minified and embedded into the file.

To the right, you'll see a screenshot of the page in touch-screen mode.

Editing and organizational features weren't required thankfully due to IE's existing integration; e.g., the feed button on the Command Bar and the Feeds tab in the so-called Favorites Center provide all that is needed to subscribe and unsubscribe feeds, organize feeds into folders and configure feed update intervals and cache settings.  Once you've subscribed to a feed in IE, my page will automatically show it and aggregate the latest items into the center view.  To update the page, simply refresh it by pressing F5.

Download the finished product (as is, without warranty, use at your own risk, etc. etc.) from the following link.  It's a single minified HTML file named "rss.htm", approx. 108 KB in size.  Feel free to link to this blog post, but please do not link to the file directly and do not host the file publicly.

(EDIT: This file is now part of an open source project named RubyFeed.  I've changed the URL below to point to the v1.0 release of RubyFeed, which corresponds to the exact version of the file that was previously linked here.  However, I recommend downloading the latest release instead.)


(MD5 = e7d93aab06276614b917ea68369c1ac9)

Please let me know if you find it useful.  If you have any ideas for new features or would like to report bugs then let me know in the comments of this post.  I'm also considering publishing the project as open source if anyone's interested in contributing to it.


No installation is required.  If you're running Windows 8 and IE 10 then all of the components that you need are already installed on your computer.

The simplest way to get started is to copy the HTML file anywhere onto your computer and then double-click it (assuming that IE is configured as your default web browser).  You can also set it as your home page using the file:/// protocol.  For example, if you copy the file to your C: drive then you could set your home page to file:///c:\rss.htm.

WARNING: Since the page uses ActiveX you may have to deal with some security restrictions in IE, which may cause annoying prompts or, in the worst case scenario, IE will entirely block the page from loading.  Unfortunately, I haven't found a way to avoid the prompts when loading the file directly from the local file system with the file:/// protocol.

Alternatively, the best solution for me was to host the page locally and relax some of the security requirements in the Local Intranet security zone.  I was able to set my homepage to http://localhost/ and I'm no longer prompted with any security warnings.  Since I'm already running IIS locally, this was a piece of cake - it was as simple as copying the file to my root web directory and renaming it to default.htm.  Hunting down the appropriate security settings in IE was a bit more complicated, so I embedded the instructions directly into the file itself.  Open the page and when prompted with an ActiveX security warning simply choose to disallow the control to load; after a second or two the page will provide step-by-step instructions on how to disable the prompts.  Note that you must not disable scripts from running; otherwise, the instructions won't be shown.


The page references a favicon.ico file in the same directory, though it's not required to actually exist.  If it does exist, then IE will display the icon when you browse to the page.  Feel free to create your own icon if you want.  Name it favicon.ico and copy it to the same directory as the HTML page.

The page also contains several configurable settings.  Open the file in a text editor such as notepad and look at the first JavaScript block near the top of the file.  It defines several variables that you can change to suit your needs, just don't delete any of them.

Happy RSS surfing!

Tags: ,

newsgroups | Web | WWW

December 01, 2006

References, Citations, Paraphrasing and Plagiarism

There is a fair amount of research and work that can go into obtaining information when a poster responds to a newsgroup question.  Information is commonly obtained through someone else's testing or research and is simply paraphrased or even quoted.  I believe that's understood by the general population of newsgroup readers.  So at what point does a poster's information become plagiaristic, if ever, when their sources aren't referenced in a newsgroup post? 

It's no secret that a large majority of information found in newsgroups is based on the poster's memory of the subject matter.  However, much of it can be attributed to actual fact-based sources such as books, articles and other newsgroup posts.  Anything stated in a newsgroup post can easily be interpreted as fact even if it's not.  Information posted without fundamental tests being performed by the respondent themselves are sometimes qualified with, "AFAIK" (as far as I know) and "IIRC" (if I remember correctly).

If it's just common knowledge that, as for unreferenced information found on newsgroups, the testing required to have derived it is not of the respondent's effort but instead the effort of unreferenced sources, then what if the information derives purely from the respondent's own testing and experience?  Posters would only get credit for having derived their own knowledge if they explicitly state that the information provided by them was acquired solely through personal testing.

Maybe posting based on personal testing is uncommon enough that it's fair to just assume that posters have retrieved their information from other sources or just have so much experience with the subject matter that testing isn't required.  Since much or all of the information of the subject matter is coming off the top of their head, to enable quick responses, it might not be fair for OPs to expect references without explicitly asking for them.  In that respect, newsgroups are treated more like personal conversations.


So this brings me to the point of syndication of USENET content and how what was once simple, off the top of your head opinion being expressed in a conversation between one or more thread correspondents, may become reference material much like books and articles to the possibly millions of users that search groups.google.com every day [1].

In school we learn about plagiarism and how bad it is, but we do it all the time in computer science.  In a way, there's just so much information out there that it's used on-demand, like children with our hands in a jar full of jelly beans. It might not make sense to reference the sources of all information provided in a newsgroup, web article, or even books.  Paraphrasing, to that point, is commonplace in newsgroups because it's just too difficult to locate all sources of information when speedy responses are preferred and expected (although not all OPs expect speedy responses.  Especially the ones that are familiar with newsgroups).

Usefulness in references

For one thing, quotations and fact-based opinions found in posts are usually not the entire story anyway.  References provide to readers a more complete description and reasoning, in its original context.  Without these references, the information being provided out-of-context may be easily misinterpreted, and then even worse, assumed to be accurate and complete.  People who prefer newsgroup posts to be short can't have it both ways.  Either you need to provide a reference to the complete information, or provide the complete information within the newsgroup post itself.  This reduces ambiguity in replies, providing more accurate information to readers.  I prefer a reference link over a long post where the source itself is easy to understand or interpret.  If that's not the case, I believe a fuller description in the post may be in order.  There's also the idea that any missing references or incomplete information will be supplemented by another respondent, but I doubt that possibly ignorant expectation disqualifies plagiarism.  I'm sure in many cases that OPs have read the references already but simply wanted clarification.  I'm not sure how or if that situation particularly applies to this topic, however.

References also enable readers to perform further research on their own, given a good place to start.  Without references, readers are forced to perform their own searches but in many cases they don't possess the necessary skills to perform Internet research without a helping hand, which is why they may have come to newsgroups in the first place.

In consideration of time and memory

To relax my arguments a bit, I must say that I don't expect everyone to always reference their sources in newsgroups.  If you're not performing research but instead answering from memory, then I think it's reasonable if you don't always reference your sources, but it's certainly desirable for the reasons I've listed above.  If you invest the time to find a good source that agrees with the information you are providing, I'm sure it will be much appreciated by readers.

Format and placement

Outdated links floating around in USENET posts are just clutter, however a reference list appearing at the bottom may prove to reduce some of the clutter found in newsgroup posts instead of in-line referencing.  Long after reference hyperlinks become invalid, the information found in a post may still prove to be useful, but having an invalid link right between two informative paragraphs or sentences reduces the readability of the post in which it's referenced and serves no useful purpose since the link no longer works.


Are newsgroup posts supposed to be small enough where citations and references (as opposed to in-line referencing, on occasion) aren't expected or doesn't need to be standardized?

I wonder if it's a lack of standardization or precedence that most respondents feel like it's unnecessary (or just don't bother) to reference and cite the sources of their information, where applicable.  So here's my proposal for a simplified, standardized idiom for citing and referencing within newsgroup posts.

If anyone is aware that these standards or anything similar exists already, I'd love to see some links to your sources submitted as comments, please.

Newsgroup citation and referencing standardization based on [2,3]:


  • Maximum length of lines in characters (based on common newsreader capabilities)
  • International character sets (e.g., reference to a book title published only in French)
  • Should we reference the author? publisher? dates?
  • How do we reference sections in web articles?  pages in books?


  1. Citations in posts should use the same standards as specified by [2].  For example, the [2] that I've just used to cite [2] :)
  2. Respondents should post a list of references after their entire signature.  Here is an example reference list, appearing after my signature, that could be included in newsgroup posts that cite these resources (also serves as the reference list for this blog entry):

Dave Sexton

[1] Search Engine Watch, Searches Per Day

[2] IEEE style documentation

[3] IEEE style edition § Web Page

[4] IEEE style edition § Individual Author

And here's an example book reference based on [4]:

[5] J. Writer, Computer Science, Reading-Material Press, 1996.
pp. 78-96: Artificial Intelligence

As always, I'd love to hear from anyone that has something to say about this post.  Drop me a comment.