Redmond RSS: Death knell to Atom? Birth of an 'open' era for Microsoft?

If you ask me, there could be a bit more to Microsoft's announcement that it will be supporting RSS in the next version of Windows (code-named Longhorn) than meets the eye.  For starters, to hear all about it, you should give a listen to my 12 minute interview with Microsoft's Windows Group Product Manager Megan Kidd.

Download this PodcastIf you ask me, there could be a bit more to Microsoft's announcement that it will be supporting RSS in the next version of Windows (code-named Longhorn) than meets the eye.  For starters, to hear all about it, you should give a listen to my 12 minute interview with Microsoft's Windows Group Product Manager Megan Kidd.  The interview is available as an MP3 that can be downloaded or, if you’re already subscribed to ZDNet’s IT Matters series of audio podcasts, it will show up on your system or MP3 player automatically. See ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in.

There are three primary components to Microsoft's forthcoming support of RSS.  The first is robust support for it in Microsoft's Web browser, the second is support for it at a developer and platform level (within the OS) and the third has to do with an RSS extension that Microsoft came up with to make it possible to keep track of ordered lists with RSS.  Normally, RSS feeds are just streams of events where the order of what the end user sees matches the order in which items were received through an RSS subscription.  Some RSS clients provide rudimentary sorting capabilties but none allow the publisher of the feed to maintain an ordered list in a way that someone subscribing to that list (via RSS) will always see the publisher's most current order. 

Going back to how Internet Explorer's support for RSS might be different  from the way FireFox supports RSS, there were scant details.  My sense is that there won't be much difference.  Without plug-ins, a browser's support for RSS can only go so far, I think (Talkback below if you think otherwise).

At the platform level, Microsoft is going to turn on an RSS application programming interface for developers so that their software can natively publish RSS feeds without having to know anything about how to do that.  The example given by Kidd of how this might manifest itself in the user experience is that a developer of some sort of photo editing and archival application can easily attach RSS feeds to photo albums in such a way that those feeds can drive the Windows' RSS-enabled screen saver. 

Going back to the aforementioned ordered-list capability, developers of list oriented applications (including Microsoft) should be able to merge the platform level support and the ordered list capability in some interesting ways.  For example, you should be able to subscribe to Outlook's To-Do list and see that list in the same order that you'd see it in Outlook.  One blogger who saw the demo noted how the feature will level the playing field for the different types of multimedia content that might get delivered through an RSS feed. For example, instead of having a dedicated podcatching client at the head-end of your RSS feeds for receiving podcasts, you'd just have a regular RSS reader that lists the different types of multimedia content that are available to you (audio, video, still images, etc.) via the various feeds you subscribe to.  All this said, said, when asked if Microsoft would be taking advantage of the platform-level support for RSS in its own applications (eg: Microsoft Office), Kidd said that it's a good question but that she had no news to offer on that front.

I asked Kidd if that platform-level of support was going to be available in current version of Windows XP and the answer was that it would not.   However, the browser-based RSS functionality will turn up in one of the forthcoming updates to Internet Explorer that can be used with XP (presumably the one that will get other Firefox features like tabbed browsing -- a feature that I have turned off because you can't use Windows standard keystroke  for switching between windows [ALT-TAB] for switching between FireFox tabs).

In the bigger picture, I can't help but wonder if there's more than meets the eye to Microsoft's support of RSS, as well as the extension of RSS to support ordered lists.   First, to have Microsoft come out and support RSS and not support the other syndication technology (Atom -- yes, I asked Editors Note: This has changed, see the update below) doesn't bode well for Atom.  Furthermore, members of the Atom community have discussed how Atom is designed to address subscription scenarios that RSS isn't well equipped to address.  Well, before today's announcement, RSS was not very well equipped to subscribe to ordered lists (although you could technically fudge it like I do with something like and FireFox's Live Bookmarks).   Now, by virtue of an extension, it is.  Perhaps any extrapolations -- like the one where I'm thinking that RSS can probably be similarly extended to support the scenarios that only Atom could handle before -- would be overly simplistic.  I'm sure that by the end of the day or sometime next week, some part of the blogosphere will have this issue vetted, dissected, and thoroughly hashed out.  

Many who are reading this news for the first time will begin to think that history is repeating itself.  I'm talking about the history where Microsoft embraces some standard and extends it.  Microsoft has announced that it will, according to Kidd, "make the Simple List extension specification freely available under the Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution Deed" (the commercial version, not the non-commercial version).  As such, this represents yet another type of license that Microsoft is applying to its technologies. This extends the range of specific licenses -- from proprietary to full-blown open source -- that it already attaches to its existing technologies.  Did Microsoft just catapult itself from open source laggard to cutting edge licensor?  Whatever it did, this is definitely not the Microsoft the world is used to seeing (granted, if thousands or millions of publishers make use of the specification, it could drive demand for the Microsoft operating systems and applications that support it).

At Gnomedex, where Microsoft made the announcement,  Creative Commons chairman Lawrence Lessig apparently praised Microsoft for the move.  One obvious synergy is that the RSS 2.0 specification is also licensed under the same Creative Commons deed.  But, I can't help but wonder if we may soon see more specifications, and eventually software (there is a difference), being released under a Creative Commons deed vs. an open source license.  Earlier this year in his interview with me, while lamenting the proliferation of open source licenses, Open Source Initiative acting president Michael Tieman talked about how he'd like to see the open source industry move towards the Creative Commons model since open source licensing and Creative Commons deeds both address the same primary issue: copyrights.  

[Update 6/24/05: Since first publishing this blog and doing the interview with Microsoft, a company spokesperson has retracted an earlier statement that Atom would not be supported.  That said, my feeling is that the announcements are laced with enough enthusiasm for RSS that they are to Atom's long term detriment.  Also, I'll stick to my conclusions about how RSS can be extended to deal with scenarios that it's not currently supporting as evidence that RSS has plenty of undiscovered potential left in it.]