Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 17/9/2004One of the many paradoxes of corporate life is that a company can have a public image completely at odds to the culture of the people who work there. SCO is a good example -- if you meet the technical people who create the products, they're often old-school Unix types who love technology and the good that it can do.

Friday 17/9/2004
One of the many paradoxes of corporate life is that a company can have a public image completely at odds to the culture of the people who work there. SCO is a good example -- if you meet the technical people who create the products, they're often old-school Unix types who love technology and the good that it can do. Microsoft is another: it has scads of bright, creative people who are greedy for new ideas and enthusiastic about innovation and openness. Are these attributes you think of when Microsoft itself comes to mind?

As a result of this ambiguity, I've been watching the explosion of Microsoft employee blogs with great interest. I don't think it's possible for the company's steely-eyed monolithic robo-corporatism to survive once the gates are open and the blogs are letting in the fresh air of direct comment. Blogs are bi-directional, an aspect that's sometimes overlooked, and I predict they'll be sources of profound cultural change in many places.

However, I wasn't expecting the news today that the sheer bandwidth consumed by the blogs is causing Microsoft some problems. All those RSS feeds are draining dry the company's connectivity, and nobody's quite sure what to do about it. It's already sparked an internal revolt on the Redmond campus -- who'd have thought such a thing was possible, let alone that it would be public? -- when Microsoft tried to cut down on the amount of data flowing out, but everyone's agreed that this is a general problem that will only get worse.

There are other problems to RSS feeds. Yes, it's very convenient to have all your favourite places deliver their updates directly to one place, so you can flick through everything without hopping from site to site. That's also the trouble -- adding another RSS feed to your viewer is so easy that it's no problem to accumulate an avalanche of news, far more than you can read. You don't mind, because you can scan down a list of headlines in no time and you're not paying for the bandwidth.

It doesn't look like that from the other end. If you're a site providing the RSS feed, you're sending out a whole load of expensive information with no idea whether it's being read or not. That might be annoying and expensive, but when you're a site that depends on selling online advertising -- the stuff that helps pays my wages, so I'm motivated here -- you're doubly stumped. No advertising on earth will do any good if the stuff doesn't get read, and there hasn't been much public discussion of business models that can cope with widespread RSS, let alone those that capitalise on it.

It's not as bleak as you might think: the days when sites sold advertising on raw clicks are fading. Advertisers are savvy to the new media, and know to check the real effectiveness of their spending. If an RSS feed carries a link that brings someone onto the site who then checks out the adverts, then it's doing a fine job. The question is: what if it doesn't?

In the online world, history relates that the users drive the technology. RSS isn't going away, and no amount of hand-wringing can change the fact that people like it. It's both exciting and comforting that the Net is still capable of doing its own thing despite all that corporate pressure to make it conform, but lordy -- you can't relax for a minute, can you?

Just time to relate today's finest industry name. Over at Oracle, the chief financial officer is one Harry You. This gives stories about the man a curiously personal touch: "We expect growth for this year," You told analysts. It's not hard to see other situations where his name might introduce a surreal note -- "Is that you, dear?". "Yes but don't call me dear"; "When it came to usability, You's ability was unmatched"; and "The corneal transplant surgeon only has eyes for You." You'd better believe it.

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