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Expect better

Data above the level of a single site is immensely valuable to people. If you're in the software business you'll know by by now that data is the new platform. Which is why David Berlind's take on Microsoft's RSS is a bit disappointing:

"First, to have Microsoft come out and support RSS and not support the other syndication technology (Atom yes, I asked) 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 del.icio.us and FireFox's Live Bookmarks). Now, by virtue of an extension, it is. Redmond RSS: Death knell to Atom? Birth of an 'open' era for Microsoft?"

David Berlind is capable of much better - I can only assume he's trying to stir the pot! So, some obligatory pushback.

First I think most of us who have worked on Atom will see Microsoft's announcement around RSS support as a positive thing. Inside Microsoft, people like Robert Scoble and Dare Obasanjo should be pleased with this outcome. MS surely get the value of putting data into RSS and are committing to it not just for IE7, but all the way down into the Longhorn OS. Sam Ruby, who is the secretary of the Atom WG is already looking to support the module in the feed validator. If Berlind is looking to incite a flame it won't work; arguing over formats is so 2003.

Second, if like me, you've worked on lists, it's a highly positive thing - they get that lists are the next low-hanging fruit after feeds. Here's a gedanken - on Monday, start writing a list of the data you have that is in list form. I bet, by Friday, you have a long list. Now imagine you can integrate all that data, remix it, aggregate it, search it, synthesize it, tag it. Technically speaking a list module is so simple, so trivial, that my best guess has been that we developer types just haven't bothered to do it. To get an idea of how trivial a list extension sounds, well, I suppose it would be like writing "The Computer" on your computer - absolutely pointless. Socially and commercially however having a unified list format that isn't buried in HTML is going to be insanely valuable. The problem with HTML lists is that you can't get at them, class them, tag them, most importantly, share them. Without the XML vocabulary, the data remains hidden inside all the other HTML gorp. Manipulating HTML lists is like trying to program with a picture of a computer instead of a real computer - there's only so much you can do.

Third, it's the XML, stupid. The list notation can go into any of the many RSS formats as far as I can tell. It's not being baked into RSS2.0, which is to say it's not an extension of RSS2.0 at all, it's just an XML module. At this point I'm tempted to debunk a particular confusion that reigns in the XML syndication world - the difference between modularity and extensibility, but that's for another day. Suffice to say the Simple List Extension, is an XML vocabulary, and not an extension of RSS. Indeed you can start using it right now without any RSS/Atom in sight. Let me repeat - you do not need to use RSS2.0 or Atom to use the Microsoft Simple List Extensions.

Fourth, the article keeps saying RSS, but is careful not to say which one, while Atom is "the other syndication technology" - this lest you not know it, is nonsense. Tech journalists following the space are surely obliged to know there's about 9 variants, 2 of which are Atomic. Consider that there is greater technical difference between RSS1.0 and RSS2.0 than between RSS2.0 and Atom. Then again, in the bowels of the software, it's possible to support all the formats in a single programming model. Bizarre, the fact that you can do so has been levelled as a criticism of Atom - almost to say, "If it doesn't break my code, what's the point!?". Some of us would consider non-breakage a benefit however (if you are non-technical consider such cries a pathology that come with being a developer - we can't help it).

Where Atom adds value is cleaning up how extensions will work, how content is to be encoded, what the content is, how to deal in particular with XHTML (can be messy), how entries are identified, links, how clients and server tools will interoperate, how feeds can be encrypted and secured - nitpicky things that waste a lot time, are not much fun, and ultimately frustrate users and tool builders. You can support all the formats within a single program, but it's tricky to support all the formats across a variety of systems. Much of the value in Atom is ultimately social, not technical - Atom is an IETF technology, relatively safe from the personality wars which have plagued syndication technology.

And that's just the Atom format - the Atom Publishing Protocol, aka "how do I move this stuff around" is in no danger of demise. Indeed, some people think the publishing protocol is a key value add of Atom. It's one thing to to support a variety of formats, it's quite another to support multiple posting protocols. You would not get to see the raw value and economies of scale of the Web today if every second server had shipped a custom version of HTTP.

This development of standard modules is where future innovation will occur - something the RSS1.0 crowd figured out years ago, and who still have the better technology in that regard, but only if you are prepared to programmatically manipulate it as RDF - otherwise it's just like all the others. For those working in the enterprise and integration space I think you will see Web Services modules come to be used or reinvented to target Atom/RSS structures. If there is a death knell anywhere in this story, it's for the SOAP envelope.

June 26, 2005 04:40 PM


Randy Charles Morin
(June 27, 2005 12:21 AM #)

Agree entirely. Innovation by creating modules that build on existing formats in ingenius. It's so much better than re-inventing the wheel with new formats that replicate existing vocabs.

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» On RSS and the importance of list handling from James Governor's MonkChips
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Tracked on June 27, 2005 03:12 PM