Microsoft Loves RSS

The blogoshpere is buzzing about Microsoft’s announced support for RSS. Here’s a quick history of how they got there, and the good and bad on what they are adding to the standard.

How we got there?

Microsoft is not really a new player in the syndication space. With the release of Internet Explorer 4.0, in 1997, the Redmond giant introduced CDF, a format to push content and software to the operating system. With the craze around push deflating, CDF was pushed in the background.

While such efforts were not that successful, RSS moved stealthily towards the mainstream. As a plucky little standard, it is starting to dominate how a lot of notification is being done. So Microsoft decided, wisely, to join the RSS bandwagon.

However, old habits die hard and just embracing a standard is not enough. So Microsoft decided to extend the standard with some “enhancements” they created (known as Simple List Extensions). The fact that they are extending the standard is not something I have a problem with, even though it sounds like the old “embrace and extend” approach they took to HTML. However, what I have a problem with is what they decided to tackle.

Lists and RSS

The new proposed specification allows the ability to create lists. Yes, lists are a good idea if you want to use RSS for something other than distributing content. However, it’s a problem that’s already been solved, and one that has pained much of the RSS community. Let me explain.

In early 2000, when RSS was still in its infancy (version 0.92), a debate erupted on several mailing lists as to how RSS should evolve. The two sides to the debate were as follows:

  • On one side were the hard core geeks, who believed that RSS should be reformulated as an RDF specification, tying it into the Semantic Web. Realize that, at the time, the concepts behind this were faily revolutionary: machine intelligence, etc…
  • On the other side were the hard core hackers, who believed that the beauty of RSS would lie in its simplicity, and that its adoption would go along the same course as HTML if it were kept simple.

This ended up with two different formats: RSS 1.0 (which met the requirement of RDF integration) and RSS 2.0 (which met the requirement of simplicity).

Well, the irony is that it turned out both sides were correct: On the one hand, plugging RSS into a more formal structure, using things like namespaces and an orderly model could allow it to do more; on the other hand, keeping it simple allowed it to thrive.

Fast forward to today. RSS 2.0 is widely adopted, thanks to its simplicity. And Microsoft is announcing the use of extensions to create lists. RSS 1.0 also enjoys wide support (though nowhere near as wide as RSS 2.0) and supports lists natively. See the humor here: by endorsing RSS 2.0 and creating extra extensions, Microsoft has essentially added a feature that existed in RSS 1.0.

But wait! It gets better. The proponent for the RSS 2.0 specification was Dave Winer, who wrote the RSS 2.0 specifications and maintained it for a fair amount of time after that. However, Dave is pushing a new list and outline format called OPML and is pushing it as the next format he wants people to try out.

So we now have three different ways to create lists. And that’s not even considering the fact that you could use the Microformat concept and had a rel="list" to an HTML element and end up with another format.So Microsoft gets an A for embracing RSS, another A for using namespaces (instead of creating a new version of RSS) and releasing their extension under a Creative Commons license, but gets an F for poor research in terms of introducing a new format. There were a number of other useful things they could have introduced as part of this effort but just generating lists is attempting to reinvent the wheel without really providing any added value.

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