Microsoft's growing endorsement of the Really Simple Syndication protocol (RSS) may leave the company with no choice but to refresh some of its desktop applications ahead of its current plans. News.com's Stephanie Olsen reports that Microsoft's MSN is testing the Really Simple Syndication protocol in two capacities. First, it's turning MSN's personalization feature, known as MyMSN, into an RSS aggregator. RSS aggregators allow end users to simultaneously subscribe to content feeds from multiple publishers including news organizations like CNN and independent bloggers. Typically, the aggregation function orders links, summaries, and sometimes the full text of that content in reverse chronological order based on the time it arrived in a feed. Currently, a lot of RSS subscription takes place through software such as Firefox (via its Live Bookmark feature) or Newsgator (which works with Microsoft's Outlook). By having MyMSN handle aggregation, viewing updates can be done from any Web browser.
In addition to adding the RSS aggregation feature to MyMSN, Olsen also reported that Microsoft has added new RSS capabilities to Spaces, the company's blog hosting service that competes with Google's Blogger.com. The new feature creates a hub-and-spoke capability where one person or company's blog can be updated by another person or company's blog using RSS.
In separate news, the blogosphere is reporting that MSN is also testing the connection of RSS to search results. Although it would take some time to fully appreciate what this means, one benefit might be that, as the body of content that satisfies your search criteria changes (as new content is published), your feeds can be updated with the new information. It could be a way of saving your searches and being notified when new results become available. In an online post, Brady Forest, a product manager for MSN, gives instructions on how to build the URL that users of RSS aggregators would subscribe to in order to see updated search results. In my tests of the feature with Firefox's Live Bookmark feature, subscribing to a specific search string resulted in the delivery of the top eight search results.
Although all of this RSS functionality is being tested, just the fact that Microsoft has so many RSS initiatives underway is a giant endorsement of the technology. In his post, Forest says "This is a service we want to provide and make great." But to complete the ecosystem, having an RSS aggregator in MyMSN for reading those feeds won't be enough since so many users of the Internet are not users of MyMSN. Microsoft will have to make sure it's other platform -- namely Windows, Office, Outlook, and Internet Explorer -- have robust support for RSS feed subscription.
Microsoft's flagship browser has come under increasing pressure as Firefox eats into its marketshare -- in part because of advancements such as its RSS subscription capability. After first saying that Internet Explorer would recieve no new functional updates, Microsoft did an about face in November 2004 when it said that it might consider add-ons if customers demanded it (code for, "if IE's marketshare suffers at the hands of alternative browsers, we'll react"). While RSS subscription capabilities are available in Internet Explorer through third parties like Pluck, my sense is that Microsoft will have no choice but to refresh Internet Explorer this year to not only be on par with some of Firefox's key features, but to also keep up with what's going on elsewhere around the company, like what's happening at MSN. Whether Microsoft bakes that functionality into its desktop software by building it itself, or through acquisitions (the way it's entering the anti-spyware market) of outfits like Pluck and NewsGator remains to be seen.