Sunday, May 07, 2006

MyToday.com: A Public RSS Feed Aggregator

(Having a general idea about RSS feeds will be helpful in understanding the following review more completely. If you don't know what RSS feeds are or what their significance is, a simple introduction to this technology is available here. Simply put, instead of having to visit different websites for reading different kinds of information, RSS feeds allow all the information from multiple websites to be collected at one place)

The creators of MyToday.com call their website to be a 'Public Aggregator', differentiating it from the commonly known private aggregators like the popular Bloglines.com service. What is the difference between the two? Basically, its about the flexibility and control in one(private aggregator) and simplicity and ease of use in the other(public aggregator). In a private aggregator like Bloglines, you start with a completely blank slate; you have to manually add every single RSS feed that you are interested in to the aggregator, which puts the responsibility on the user to dig out the most interesting web sources that are present on the Internet, but it also gives complete control to the user about which feeds are actually collected by the aggregator. If you are a control freak, you need something like Bloglines.

But for the vast majority of the web users, the exact source from where the information is pulled is not very important; they may only care about the subjects that they are interested in: like news, entertainment, sports etc. Even otherwise, not everyone may be in the know-how of which websites are the most popular ones on a given subject. This is where a knowledgeable third person('Editor') can play an important role: collect the RSS feeds from some of the best sources on the Internet and then categorise them under different subjects according to the type of content that they provide. The users can then just select the subject of their interest and can get the most interesting content in that category conveniently collected at one place. For example, a user can just go to the "Blogs" page on MyToday.com where the feed content from all the popular blogs(yes, Sepia Mutiny, Desicritics etc are all there) are collected and presented in a user friendly format.

The interface of the website makes use of modern web technologies("Web 2.0/Ajax") which makes it easier for the users to view and navigate through all the feeds in the shortest time possible. Feeds are collected together under different panels allowing a user to expand(or collapse) the select panels to see(or hide) the feeds under only that panel. If you are like me who believes that only "The Hindu" follows responsible journalism practices(just a meek attempt at trolling ;) ), you can make the "News" page look like the following image, with all but the feeds from 'The Hindu' being hidden from the view.
Some expanded and some collapsed panels
There is also a button at the top of the website that allows all the panels to be collapsed or expanded with a single mouse click. What I did not like in the interface is the way the actual content is presented to the users: whenever you click a feed link, it takes around 4-5 seconds for the 'balloon' to pop up and show the content to the users. Sometimes it appears as if the website is not responding to the clicks at all(I scrolled away from the view so many times!) and some other times the balloon pops-up little away from where you had actually clicked. At least some feedback regarding the content being fetched from the server can be displayed(ala "Loading..." message in the GMail interface) at a corner of the web page. Another thing that I did not find impressive is the completely different look of the home page from the rest of the pages; I think the home page should not be so distinguishable from the remaining pages. There should also be a head/main menu at the top of every page containing the links to all the categories, which will save the user from the pain of having to constantly go back to the home page to select a different category.

A very impressive feature of the website is the concept of "Reader Lists". In a way it directly adds to the variety of the feeds as collected by the core editorial team. A 'Reading List' is a list created from the RSS feeds that someone else is tracking on a regular basic, allowing the other users to see what he/she(an editor of a newspaper, a technology freak, a popular blogger etc) is reading frequently on the Internet. For example, if you want to be the next Aaman Lamba on the South Asian scene, make a start by following his reading list which is available on MyToday.com here. If you think that the RSS feeds that you personally keep track of might be of some interest to a section of the netizens, then send a request to MyToday.com to create a separate reading list for you(submission details are on their home page). With more reading lists thus created in the future, it should be one of the most interesting services provided by the website.

I found it strange to see the official blog and wiki of the website being hosted on free, publicly available services like wordpress.com and wikispaces.com. I don't know what the exact requirements with respect to the blog and wiki were that did not allow them to host these softwares on their own servers, but whatever they were, in my opinion, hosting the blog and wiki outside of their own domain will severely affect their brand image(professional vs casual players).

A surprise is in the store for you: the website is avaiable through the mobile interface too! Just browse to this location through your Internet-enabled mobile phone and enjoy the service on the go. Unfortunately, I couldn't test this feature in time.

Overall, I am impressed by the usefulness of this website for a non-geek user who wants to browse through the latest stories published on the Internet from one central location, through a convenient interface. For the control freaks, they promise to implement the ability to add one's own feeds to the website in the near future. When that day comes, a user can both browse the most popular articles as collected by the editorial team and add their own favourite feeds from the Internet too - a perfect combination of simplicity and flexibility.

For more information:
MyToday Home
MyToday Blog
MyToday Wiki
Aaman Lamba's Reading List
What are RSS Feeds?
What are Feed Aggregators?
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