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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Piping Up About Yahoo! Pipes

Syndicated content is, in my opinion, the boon of the Web 2.0 age. Both casual and power internet users incorporate feeds into their daily lives - some without even realizing it. Syndication allows us to quickly and easily get the up-to-date information that we want or need with a minimum of effort (given readily available consumption mediums such as desktop readers, mobile devices, web browsers, and email clients).

Of course, syndication does have its downsides. One problem is that of "over-subscription", meaning that a feed consumer is subscribed to more feeds than he can possibly read in a reasonable amount of time. Couple with this problem the fact that many feeds contain the same (or very similar) content, and it's easy to see why the novelty wears off for most users. Add, just for fun, the fact that most people who subscribe to syndicated content do so through different consumption media, and the world of syndicated content consumption becomes a mess rather quickly.

Take my father-in-law, a devout New England sports fan, for example. A recent inspection of his home computer revealed that he is subscribed to several different sports-related feeds, including: 1 feed for score updates, 1 feed for news, and 2 editorial blog feeds. I suspect that my father-in-law has also subscribed to these same four feeds on his computer at work. So, in total, he has loaded eight separate URLs and clicked on a "subscribe" link (or icon) eight separate times in order to get his daily sports fix, which seems like a lot of work.

Shouldn't there be an easier way?

Enter Yahoo! Pipes

If you've never heard of Yahoo! Pipes, you're probably wondering what it is exactly. Put simply, it's a way to aggregate (and/or manipulate) content from multiple sources, and output that content to a single source. Anyone with a Yahoo! account can create new Pipes, and the surprisingly intuitive drag-and-drop interface makes it as easy as can be to aggregate content from multiple sources.

For my father-in-law, I fetched the sports news feed from ESPN, scores from totallyscored.com, and his hometown team blogs from the Boston Globe. With the data in hand, I filtered the ESPN feed to include only news for his teams and sorted all of the data by date (most recent first). Then, I simply saved and published my new Pipe, and it was all ready to go. But, to make my new Pipe easy to remember, I used Yahoo's convenient pipe naming feature... so now I can always find it at http://pipes.yahoo.com/driscollwebdev/newenglandsports

So now my father-in-law only has to put one address into his feed reader in order to get caught up on his teams' news, scores, and editorials. Truthfully, though, I haven't even gotten to the part where Pipes shines.

Let's say that my father-in-law decides that he wants to add another blog and another news feed to his syndicated content. Under the old regime, he would have to subscribe to each in all of his feed readers, meaning that he would have to type the URI into his browser and then click 'Subscribe' at least twice (four times if we assume that he'll do it at work too).

But with Pipes, all he has to do is log in and add the URI to the list of feeds already aggregated in his Pipe... and that's it. There's nothing else to subscribe to because he's already subscribed to the Pipe - so the new data will just start flowing in to all of his reader applications!

From a developer's perspective, Pipes is a great shortcut for the kind of work that would normally take up quite a bit of time. Rather than spending time creating the code to filter, sort, and format syndicated content from multiple sources, we can simply retrieve our new Pipe's RSS feed and use the pre-formatted, pre-sorted, and pre-filtered data in whatever manner we choose. This allows us to focus more on building a cool application (a Boston-sports-skinned SpringWidget perhaps), and less time worrying about data cleanliness.

I've only really scratched the surface here of what Yahoo! Pipes can do - I highly recommend that you give it a try for yourself. If you want to see some examples of our Pipes, you can check them out at http://pipes.yahoo.com/driscollwebdev.


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