Balkanizing RSS and the risks to the information ecosystem

Balkanizing RSS and the risks to the information ecosystem

Summary: I've been following Dave Winer's various work for years now but none of it has been quite as interesting as watching the political imbroglios surrounding RSS 2.0. The RSS format itself is something that is still creeping onto the radar of users in the mainstream but it's something we will all get increasingly familiar with in the coming years. And Dave has been a faithful steward of the current RSS specification, which has become a platform in its own right that thousands of people have invested countless hours and financial resources in and millions of people use daily, whether they know it or not.

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TOPICS: Browser
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I've been following Dave Winer's various work for years now but none of it has been quite as interesting as watching the political imbroglios surrounding RSS 2.0. The upside is, for the vast majority of us, RSS is still the stable, successful syndication platform we didn't know how badly we needed. The RSS format itself is something that is still creeping onto the radar of users in the mainstream but it's something we will all get increasingly familiar with in the coming years.  And Dave has been a faithful steward of the current RSS specification, which has become a platform in its own right that thousands of people have invested countless hours and financial resources in and millions of people use daily, whether they know it or not.

RSS 2.0 has certainly come into its own since being introduced in late 2002 and it's now the most widely available Web feed format bar none. And this is important because RSS, more than any other format, facilitates the Web 2.0 information ecosystem, something I'll define here as the automated syndication and recirculation of content between the all systems on the Web.

This ecosystem makes possible impressive scenarios like the 4,500+ data sources available from Google News, or value-add services entirely based on the feed ecosystem like Feedburner and Technorati.  In fact, RSS is powerful because just about any set of items can be syndicated with it, from blog entries and podcasts, to video segments and stock quotes.

Without a standardized, machine digestible way of consuming content, we'd be back to writing programs that wade through the jungle of HTML trying to figure what we're looking at.  RSS provides an essential framework that organizes Web content into clean, crisp chunks (known as items) that have vital metadata associated with them, like the date of publication, authorship, etc. 

And being so widely recognized and stable a standard, it allows people to justify investing considerable time and money into creating tools that support the platform: feed readers, aggregation tools, and even extensions. For example, RSS has fundamental, built-in support in Windows Vista that will make RSS, Atom (a competing format growing in popularity), and feeds in general a household word sooner than many of us might think.

But it's this last piece, extensions, that have been making things so interesting lately.  Dave Winer recently wrote about extending RSS in an article titled Why formats like RSS work.  In it he clearly lays out the two permissible ways that RSS can be extended without breaking it.  And extended it sometimes must be because RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and at times, it can be too simple for the job.  You can easily dig up a number of people who can conceive of scenarios that RSS is not capable of handling well.  To this, Dave points to the section of the RSS specification that clearly lays out two paths and only two paths for people who would like to "radically improve on RSS": 1) extend it with namespaces or 2) create a new format as an evolution, though you can no longer call the result RSS.

Now, those of you who've made it this far might wonder why all of this is really important.  Most of us have begun using feeds recently, and count on being able to copy and paste them into our feed readers and other tools that we have.  But being able to do so with impunity is always at risk.  A good example is Jon Udell's discussion of how iTunes has embedded https: links in its feeds, a clear violation of the RSS specification.  But one that probably seemed reasonable at the time and a very minor deviation.  But nevertheless it breaks RSS. And using an iTunes feed in a RSS reader that expects real RSS might result in cooperation if you're lucky, but it could just as easily result in outright failure if you're not. This is because the tool developer had no reason to expect https: links would be there. 

For RSS to be successful for us, stability and dependability are essential features.  Not that there haven't been good citizens in this regard, Microsoft for example has at least two RSS extensions that I'm aware of, Simple List Extensions and the intriguing and high-concept Simple Sharing Extensions.

RSS 2.0 

Unfortunately, there is little doubt that RSS compliance has become somewhat balkanized.  Because of its very simplicity there is some vagueness that allows it to be subject to a dozen little misinterpretations.  And it gets misused out of ignorance, laziness, and even misguided good intentions.  Despite these minor indignities however, the upside is for the vast majority of us RSS is still the stable, successful syndication platform we didn't know how badly we needed.  And it's more than good enough for what we want: simple, powerful, pervasive syndication of content.  But it's up to all of us to keep it this way and education is the cure here I hope.

And let's not forget the true potential here: RSS, and yes, probably Atom too, are the "Unix pipes" of the Web; manifestly simple and easy ways to connect virtually any content from point A to points X, anywhere on the Web.  Having an RSS feed on everything gives us a world where just about anything is possible including:

  • Sophisticated mashups
  • Frictionless content reuse
  • Low-barrier Web service composition
  • Lightweight application integration
  • Full-on enterprise application integration.
So yes, stable feed formats are central to the future of the Web and extracting value from it, but only as long as we follow the rules.

Topic: Browser

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6 comments
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  • This is very thorough in every way but one!

    Really appreciated this article, but was shocked when I got to the end of it that the RSS advisory board had still not been mentioned! Since that's the context that Winer's been writing from lately it seems important to discuss these folks and their perspective. Jon Udell, for example, has not only brought up the good points you cite above - he's also a member of the RSS Advisory Board that appears to be in conflict with Winer.

    That said, I think that the Board raises some good issues with the 2.0 specification (better than a DRM driven move away from the current spec, the example above). I can't help but think that these issues should be dealt with and the official spec should be as clear as possible before the impending mainstream adoption occurs. Of course that should be as interoperable with past work as possible and breaking RSS as it stands today would be a terrible thing. I'm not sure that is what's going to happen, though.
    marshallkirkpatrick
  • Barely a standard

    "Without a standardized, machine digestible way of consuming content, we'd be back to writing programs that wade through the jungle of HTML trying to figure what we're looking at."

    Read the specification for RSS, then talk about a "standard". It is designed to be ridiculously easy to produce content in, and ridiculously difficult to consume. A few months ago, I looked into writing an RSS reader that would plug-in to Outlook. I gave up without writing a single line of code, because I wasn?t going to waste my time.

    ?For example ? Atom (a competing format growing in popularity), and feeds in general a household word sooner than many of us might think.?

    Yeah, hooray, a competing standard (Atom). Only some Web 2.0 junkie would consider the unneeded proliferation of a billion standards to be a good thing. Time to pass on the Web 2.0 grass my man.

    ?This is because the tool developer had no reason to expect https: links would be there.?

    Sure they did. RSS is an extremely loose standard that barely specifies anything. RSS has already fallen into the same trap HTML made and is still trying to get out of. I?ll get later on this.

    ?Unfortunately, there is little doubt that RSS compliance (sic) has become somewhat balkanized. Because of its very simplicity there is some vagueness that allows it to be subject to a dozen little misinterpretations. And it gets misused out of ignorance, laziness, and even misguided good intentions. Despite these minor indignities however, the upside is for the vast majority of us RSS is still the stable, successful syndication platform we didn't know how badly we needed. And it's more than good enough for what we want: simple, powerful, pervasive syndication of content. But it's up to all of us to keep it this way and education is the cure here I hope.?

    See, we?re actually in 100% agreement here. RSS?s #1 biggest problem is that is was written to be easy to produce. Someone made a conscious decision, and said, ?I would rather make it easy for millions of websites to generate RSS, then a few dozen applications to make use of RSS?. This makes sense. Unfortunately, the end result will be ten or more years of standards induced queasiness, much like HTML. There are still people writing <font> tags, and not even using them right. The reason why they get away with it, is because the browser ?helpfully? figures out what they really meant. The end result? It is pretty irrelevant if you write HTML code that should choke, because when you test the code it looks fine. There?s no feedback, no reinforcement to do things the right way. RSS is the same way. Java is the same way. XML is the same way. JavaScript is the same way. ASP, .Net, ASP.Net, etc. are all the same way. Perl is the worst offender out of all of these (so much of Perl?s elegance when writing the code becomes a disaster when debugging the code, especially implicit variables). The looser the code-creation end of the standard is, the worse things are going to be in the long run. Languages with extremely strict type casting tend to be frustrating to program in, but the end results are typically quite good, not just because the compile code base is much small, but because more bugs are found at compile time, and stick out much more clearly at run time during testing.

    ?Unfortunately, there is little doubt that RSS compliance has become somewhat balkanized. Because of its very simplicity there is some vagueness that allows it to be subject to a dozen little misinterpretations.?

    RSS is deliberately vague, it is barely a standard at all, and more like a ?general rule of thumb?. The results speak for themselves. You?ll note that there are few (non-Microsoft) non-standard Java or C/C++ or Perl or whatever extensions out there, and billions of non-standard HTML, CSS (and now RSS) extensions. Gee, the fact that the standards for the first group are super tight, and the standards for the second group are super loose might not have anything to do with that, would it?

    I?m sorry, but I am sick and tired of having my technological life increasingly revolving around ?easy to code for/in? technologies, because the end result is software that just plain stinks. The easier it is to write code, the larger the group of people writing code who don?t know what their doing. Elitist? Guilty as charged. I do not think that everyone should be writing software. Let?s face it, 50% of the people out there are incapable of filling out a 1040EZ on their own without software or a professional, because it is ?too complex?. What makes me think that these people should be writing code? A 1040EZ has something like three simple conditionals (?If you made more than $1,500 in taxable interest, you may not use this form??), and that is ?too confusing?. There are too many fourteen year old script kiddies out there who think they know what they?re doing. Last night, I read an article about ?how cool Ruby is?. You know what the author said were things he ?never saw in any other language?? No separation of primitives and objects. Data type widening. Implicit variables. C?mon, that stuff has been in nearly every language I have ever touched, and this guy is telling me that a language rocks because it does something that nearly every other language does. These are the people I want writing production code? Give me a break.

    J.Ja
    Justin James
    • Slightly better...

      At least the whole post made it there in one piece, too bad the line breaks got mangled as well as the font, making it hard to read...

      J.Ja
      Justin James
  • How many people want tickers?

    Some, yes.

    But I think more people would rather block Flash than watch characters stream across the page.

    Assertion: RSS will be more significant as a component of other programs people want for a specific purpose, rather than as a stand-alone annoyance.
    Anton Philidor
    • What tickers? and thx Marshall.

      I have to assume you are talking about Winer's stupid River browser when you mention "tickers going across the screen" because other than that, RSS has nothing to do with anything going across your screen other than an input source for an app that you can control anyway you see fit. If you mean RSS Reader widgets, that's their option also. For me, it's an annoyance if RSS is working (which isn't even possible, assuming it is formatted correctly), it just works.

      Thx Marshall for pointing out that Udell is on the RSS Advisory board, I blogged that story you mentioned the day it came out and didn't realize that until just now.

      I'm definitely seeing some power struggles going on on a personal level IRT the OPML space (which I also blogged about) and now all of a sudden am being ignored at a particular site that caters to Winer's RSS (but that's another story...), hey now I know lol.
      BillyG_n_SC
  • belay my last...

    I have no idea what this sentence means:

    For me, it's an annoyance if RSS is working (which isn't even possible, assuming it is formatted correctly), it just works.

    lol
    BillyG_n_SC