What's left for RSS to disrupt? Plenty

Summary:Updated 5/20/05: Steve Gillmor is back on "the air" again.   Under the name the "Gillmor Daily," Gillmor's new regular gig featured Dave Winer (credited with the birth or rebirth of the XML-RPC, RSS, podcasting, and OPML) for the first show and based on what is said near the show's end, Winer will be making regular appearances.

Updated 5/20/05: Steve Gillmor is back on "the air" again.   Under the name the "Gillmor Daily," Gillmor's new regular gig featured Dave Winer (credited with the birth or rebirth of the XML-RPC, RSS, podcasting, and OPML) for the first show and based on what is said near the show's end, Winer will be making regular appearances.   The exchange that most caught my attention came at 15:05 minutes into the show:

Winer: If you're expecting more from RSS and you're expecting more from the Web, I think you may be disappointed.   I don't know that it has much more to offer.  

Gillmor: I'm not sure I agree with that.   

Winer: I still like you though.

I'm in Gillmor's camp.

[Correction: Via e-mail, Winer explained that I incorrectly took his statement out of the context that immediately preceded it.  That conversation involved a discussion about generating revenue off of feeds and Web sites.  Contrary to the context that I put his statement into, in the e-mail, Winer said  "I expect a lot more from the RSS and the Web."  Most of what follows goes into some of what I think we could see from RSS.  But where a different context to Winer's statement is implied, I've attempted to correct it with strikethrough.  I also changed the headline which originally read "No more tricks for RSS? That depends"].

The future of the Web is a discussion unto itself. For example, how will the user experience change when and if everyone has gigabits of both uplink and downlink bandwidth as opposed to kilobits, which is what most everyone has today.  [Added: Over time, bandwidth has traditionally affected design standards (eg: acceptable page weights in bytes).  Whether or not additional bandwidth might lead to innovative changes in online revenue fundamentals still remains to be seen.]  So, I'll leave the Web discussion for another day.  But I don't think RSS has hit the end of its rope.  Not by a long shot.  [Added: Beyond the discussion of revenue models, RSS has some other, highly disruptive potential.]   It's just a question of whether some people have the guts to break old habits.

One of those old habits is Internet's e-mail protocol known as the Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP).  People keep saying there's nothing that comes close to being a silver bullet to the spam problem.  Not true.  RSS would be like an intercontinental ballistic missle fired right into the lion's den.  If tomorrow, we replaced SMTP with RSS, spam (at least e-mail spam) would probably disappear for good.   There are two great reasons this is true. 

The first of these is that RSS is 100 percent opt-in.  You won't get an RSS feed in your RSS reader unless you ask for it.   This means that we get to decide who can send stuff into our inboxes. This is much better than the system today where Congress and the FTC apparently feel they have the right to decide that (while the big money marketing lobbies magically get more of the lawmakers' ears than you or me).  

Reason #2: Whereas SMTP is a store-and-forward protocol, RSS is a store-and-get-retrieved protocol.   With SMTP, by the time the spam is in the mail (most of the time with a bogus return address), the spammer has taken the additional step of closing up shop and moving.  The way spammers do this reminds me a bit of those oriental rug shops that appear to go out of business within days of opening.   One day, someone will explain to me why this is a sensible way to sell rugs (I'll bet it has to do with a loophole in an import/export law).  I digress.   With RSS (the "Retrieving Stops Spam" protocol), if the spammers are serious about actually getting the spam into our inboxes, then, not only can't they give us bogus address information, but they also have the burden of storing the spam on their systems and, even more importantly, have to set up an XML feed that points to where the spam is stored.  Today, SMTP allows spammers to go out of their way to cover their tracks.  Tomorrow, if we replaced SMTP with RSS, spammers would have to lay tracks that lead straight to their front door.  

To me -- a person that has tirelessly campaigned for more cooperation among the industry players that are actually empowered to curtail spam -- when I think of the potential of RSS, I'm not sure today's usage of it even scratches the surface.   

To a lesser extent, I think the idea of multiple enclosure support will open up a whole new world for RSS as well. Enclosure support is what facilitates the distribution of rich media (and data) via RSS.  Today, where enclosures are supported and in use (for example, with podcasting), the number of enclosures that can be bundled with one feed item is one.   Technically speaking, it probably could be two or more.  It's just that the software on either end of an RSS feed isn't really ready for that world.  If I had a suggestion for the newly established Podcasting Specification Working Group (shown to me during IDG World Expo's recent Syndicate Conference by Hearst Interactive Media vice president Michael Dunn), it would be to get the multiple-enclosure idea into a proof-of-concept stage.   By now, some people are asking "why would you want to do that?"  Here's why.

RSS is largely about distribution of ideas.  I say "ideas" as opposed to content in deference to forward thinkers like Doc Searls (need a really good laugh? read this) and David Sifry, both of whom dislike the phrase "content consumer."  As an idea generator, I currrently transmit my ideas as text and/or audio.  And RSS supports both of these quite nicely (text naturally, and audio as an enclosure).  But, there are plenty of applications where the idea may require medium types that are different from (or additional to) text and audio.  Video comes to mind.  But, pursuant to the spam issue that I just discussed, what about e-mail with enclosures that can consist of just about any special file type? For example, PDF and/or DOC documents (perhaps secured ones),  spreadsheets, JPGs, GIFs, vCards (partially handled now within the RSS specification), etc.  

Actually, this is where RSS gets dangerously close to --and perhaps encroaches on -- collaboration, which is mostly dealt with by today's solutions in a proprietary fashion.  In an interview earlier this year, Userland CEO Scott young taught me why it makes much more sense to use standards-driven subscription-based infrastructures (aka: RSS-driven infrastructures) as opposed to proprietary ones.  Looking back at Ray Ozzie's blog for example, I think it's interesting how, after pioneering corporate blogging policies in 2002, his blog eventually disappeared into the ether.  Ozzie, as most people know, runs Groove Networks, which was recently acquired by Microsoft. 

Groove makes one of those collaboration tools that's largely architected around the idea of projects, workspaces (which include documents), participants, and security.  The idea of RSS-driven collaboration (distribution of ideas, documents, etc.)  is completely disruptive to the Groove-like crop of collaboration tools.  For example, workspaces and contributions to them may often involve documents of different types and this is precisely the sort of activity that RSS with multiple enclosure support could serve. Ozzie's blog, as it turns out, could have been proof of concept that Groove's approach was already behind the times.  There was Ray Ozzie, sharing ideas and collaborating with others and what was his tool of choice?  Well, it certainly wasn't Groove.   Survival in the software business often means being careful about eating another dog's dog food before you eat your own.  Even if the other dog's food tastes better (and the other dog is willing to share).

So, again, if you ask me, when it comes to RSS, you ain't seen nothing yet there's huge potential for it to disrupt certain status quo technologies and approaches to business problems.  Perhaps we never Whether it will (or not, which would be unfortunate) may depend on who has the guts to change. 

Finally, although the show is currently available through Gillmor's blog on ZDNet, longer term The Gillmor Daily will be a part of Adam Curry's stable of offerings via his new Podshow venture.  Gillmor discusses the arrangements during this first episode.  We wish Steve luck as he embarks on his new journey.

Topics: Tech Industry

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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