We’ve all known about RSS reading within Internet Explorer 7 for some time; it became evident in the beta versions earlier this year that Microsoft was finally admitting that RSS needs a home in the Windows enviornment. Now that Office 2007 is due shortly, you’ll see another room in the RSS house that Microsoft is building. Don’t expect too much: if you’re a hard-core RSS junkie that uses Google Reader, Bloglines, NewsGator or the like, you won’t be impressed. Still, native RSS reading within Outlook 2007 does get you by.
Right off the bat, the RSS functionality built into Outlook 2007 looks to use Internet Explorer as the back end, meaning you’ll likely be managing your feeds in IE, but you can manage them in Outlook if you dig. Outlook essentially becomes a front-end reader to the RSS information that IE pulls. Having said that, you’ll subscribe to feeds within IE when the orange RSS logo appears during a web browse. Click the RSS button and you’ll see a basic HTML render of the feed within IE, along with a link button to subscribe:
If you’re already subscribed to the feed, the "Subscribe to this feed" function doesn’t appear, which is nice. What isn’t so nice is that IE doesn’t provide any alternative viewing options with titles: you basically have to scroll through the entire web page to read the feed, which actually defeats the purpose. In Outlook 2007, however, things get slightly better.
When I added this feed in IE, it was added to the "Feeds" section of the Favorites Center. Right next to my Favorites is a link for my feeds and I can see which feeds I’ve subscribed to. If I hover over a feed name, IE tells me how many unread items there are and when the feed was last updated. We’re getting closer to better functionality, but it would have been nice to visually see how many unread items are there. Again, Outlook 2007 gets us closer to what we want; in fact, now that we have a few feeds set up, let’s take a look at Outlook:
You’ll notice a few things immediately. First off, Outlook 2007 will store your RSS info within your mailbox in the RSS Feeds folder. Expanding that folder shows the feeds you’ve subscribed to and hey! Look at that! You can see how many unread items there are for each feed. Unfortunately you’ll also see an issue that I hope is fixed the final Office version (I’m using the Technical Refresh of the beta right now): you can see that "Zatz Not Funny!" appears two times in my feeds. That’s because I’ve added the feed within IE, removed the feed from IE and later re-added the feed in IE. Remember, you have to manage your new subscriptions within IE. The problem is: when you remove a feed from IE, it doesn’t get removed from your RSS Feeds in Outlook 2007. Double the work equals double the displeasure from a productivity standpoint.
I’ve gone and deleted the duplicate feed for the rest of this walkthrough, so you won’t see it any longer. Sorry Dave, you just lost a subscriber! ;) So how about the reading experience in Outlook 2007? You can see below that if I click a feed, I get a listing of the post titles (very similar to e-mail headers) and can view the stories in my reading pane (again, similar to e-mail):
The entire RSS reading experience is virtually the same as the e-mail reading experience, which is both good and bad. Following a process that most folks are already accustomed to with different content reduces the learning curve, but it also limits the advanced functionality I’d like to see in an RSS aggregator. It’s not all thorns in the rose garden however: I like the fact that you customize some features at the feed level. For example: if I want the Engadget feed to show the total number of unread items and have Zatz Not Funny! show the overall total of items, I can do that:
Another nice feature (but hard to find) is the ability to have Outlook automatically download enclosures, which essentially provides support for podcasts and video files. To do this, you’ll need to navigate to Outlook’s account settings, find the RSS Feeds tab and select a feed. I’m not sure I want my podcasts within Outlook, but I’d rather have some podcasting support as opposed to none.
Additionally at the individual feed level, you can manage how often to pull content and you can limit the content to just the last "x" number of items. "Great! Where can I manage those items in Outlook 2007?" I’m so glad you asked, because this gets us back to the crux of the problem: you can’t easily manage those properties within Outlook unless you know where to look, you have to go back to IE 7′s "Favorites Center", click the "Feeds" button and right click your feed. Only then will you see this:
That’s a quick and dirty rundown of Microsoft’s first attempt to integrate RSS feeds within the IE and Office areas. Like many first attempts, it’s a bare-bones solution at best. However, it’s a solution that’s included with Internet Explorer and Office 2007, so there’s no additional third-party software needed for purchase. If you can get by on the basics and you live in Outlook, this might work for you.
Aside from the few issues I’ve pointed out, I’d love for Microsoft to leverage their purchase of Onfolio. As a standalone product, I used Onfolio for years and found its feature set to be unrivaled by any other toolset. Unfortunately, Microsoft purchased it and basically added it to the Windows Live toolbar. There’s a missed opportunity here to leverage Onfolio within IE, especially if Microsoft ever decides to host your feeds like a Bloglines or NewsGator; that would allow for feed-reading within Onfolio at any computer you can use.
So: what’s the verdict? Will you be using Outlook 2007 for RSS reading or will you stick with your current solution? Me: I’ll stay with NewsGator Online for now.