Death of the RSS reader

2006 will be the year the RSS reader dies out as a separate, standalone -- an event that will signify the success of RSS as a mainstream technology.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor on

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I've just realized that 2005 was the year I stopped using my RSS reader. I expect it was for many other people too. What's more, I'm willing to predict that 2006 will be the year that the RSS reader effectively dies out as a separate, standalone application — instead it will become just another API service, as foreshadowed by Google's plans for its reader.

There are, after all, many far more productive ways of staying up-to-date with the information feeds that matter to you,A surprising number of people have confessed to me they've secretly stopped too. whether or not they happen to use RSS as a syndication format. You can add them to a personalized start page from the likes of Yahoo! or Microsoft. You can go to sites that aggregate feeds on a specific topic into a single web page (or to news aggregation sites such as Google News or Yahoo! News). You can track them very conveniently right in your Firefox browser, using the Live Bookmarks function, or a third-party extension. When Windows Vista comes along, you'll be able to read them within desktop applications, or on the Windows desktop itself — the latter of course is something you can do now using a widget from Yahoo! or some other provider. Many more alternatives will surface during 2006.

I do several of the above, which is why I haven't visited Bloglines, my (hosted, of course) RSS reader of choice, in several weeks — or maybe months, I can't remember. And I'm not alone in abandoning the habit of opening up my RSS reader every day. I've come across a surprising number of people recently — the sort of people you'd expect to be following a lot of RSS feeds — who've confessed to me that they've secretly stopped too. There just isn't enough time to scan all those feeds any more. The only habit I keep up is that I occasionally add a new feed to my reader when I come across an especially interesting one. For example, I recently added TechCrunch — only to discover that I'd already added it some time ago, but hadn't fired up my reader in the meantime to actually read it. In fact, it must be almost a year since I was last fully up-to-date with all the feeds I subscribe to.

I know there are a lot of RSS junkies out there who can't imagine starting the day without a deep trawl through the contents of their reader, and then repeat the process several times throughout the day (and indeed some of them subscribe to this blog, for which I thank you). But although they may have influential voices — especially in the blogosphere — they're not representative of the rest of the population.

Earlier this year, Yahoo! published a survey it had commissioned on usage and awareness of RSS (PDF) . Among its findings were these striking statistics:

    • Awareness of RSS is quite low among Internet users. 12% of users are aware of RSS, and 4% have knowingly used RSS.
    • 27% of Internet users consume RSS syndicated content on personalized start pages (eg, My Yahoo!, My MSN) without knowing that RSS is the enabling technology.
    • Even tech-savvy 'Aware RSS Users' prefer to access RSS feeds via user-friendly, browser-based experiences (e.g., My Yahoo!, Firefox, My MSN).

You see, at least seven out of eight RSS users don't realize they use RSS. And that's the way it ought to be. Technology really only enters the mainstream when people don't notice it's there anymore. RSS has made some notable advances during 2005, but the most important among them have integrated it more seamlessly into the fabric of popular platforms and applications. The forthcoming decline of RSS readers is thus a sign of the success of RSS rather than any failure.

Of course there will always be a few die-hard RSS geeks who insist on the raw experience they get from tinkering with feeds, the same way some people still like to build their own PCs or service their own automobiles. The rest of us will turn to more complete services that do the hard work for us. As Jon Udell observed earlier this year after a heated Gillmor Gang discussion about attention: "Regulating the demand on our attention is what we crave." The problem with feed readers is that, although they help us to organize our information feeds, they don't address the root problem of reducing the amount of information we have to take in. For that, we need so much more: aggregation, filtering, deduplication and probably a bit of old-fashioned human editing as well, all delivered with intuitive, drag-and-drop simplicity into applications that help us organize and respond to the information that matters to us.

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