Business Week Butchers The Microsoft Syndication News

It’s always sad when a large magazine like Business Week so badly butchers the news. Today’s offender is Jay Greene, who takes the news of Microsoft extending RSS and including functionality in Longhorn, and completely misses the mark in his coverage and analysis.

Allow me to pick it apart:

The software giant has decided to put its considerable weight behind Really Simple Syndication, known to the digerati simply as RSS.

Consider what this sentence is claiming: it’s called Really Simple Syndication, but the geeks call it RSS. And while I don’t disagree that geeks call it RSS (although a number of us prefer the format-neutral term “feeds”), I don’t know of any non-geeks who refer to it as anything other than RSS.

It should also be noted that Microsoft isn’t merely extended RSS 2.0, which is how most everyone has been treating it. At the bottom of their developer information page linked above, there are links to the specs for Atom and RSS 1.0, in addition to RSS 2.0. There’s no reference in the specs for the extension that it’s linked to merely one of these formats. This extension is not limited to a particular format.

The technology makes it convenient for Web users to keep tabs on their favorite blogs, news feeds, columnists, and video by signing up to have updates automatically zapped to their PCs or mobile devices.

Automatically zapped? Oh, please. I know there’s a need to occasionally dumb things down, but this is just ludicrous.

“Automatically zapped” indicates that any time a site changes, your machine instantly receives the change. This is not how syndication works, and is in fact incorrect on both parts of the phrase. Feeds are not sent to a computer, nor are they instantaneous. A computer has to go out and ask for the feed file, and then compares it to whatever entries it had previously seen. This happens on a regular schedule, or on demand.

Microsoft, which has largely been on the sidelines as RSS gained in popularity, announced plans on June 24 to bake RSS technology into the next version of its Windows operating system, dubbed Longhorn, due at the end of 2006.

They also announced extensions to syndication formats, which is the more shocking part of the news. Obviously this is worth glossing over, as it’s apparently too technical for the reader base. I mean, only the digerati would care about something like that.

What’s more, Microsoft is going after the RSS market in a very un-Microsoft-like way -– it’s making its RSS technology available for free using the so-called Creative Commons license.

If you’re looking for the single most misleading sentence in the whole article, this is it.

Microsoft’s “RSS technology” is not being made available for free; It’s the format extensions that are being released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. This isn’t to say Microsoft can’t release source code later for their technology, but it’s not at all what was announced.

Furthermore, there is nothing “so-called” about the Creative Commons; it is a total non-sequitur and completely out of place. It’d be akin to me referring to the publication this article was published in as “the so-called Business Week”.

But Microsoft plans to dive much deeper when Longhorn ships. Including the RSS technology in the new operating system will allow thousands of software developers to create programs that take advantage of RSS feeds.

Thousands of software developers can already create programs that take advantage of RSS feeds. Thousands of software developers already have.

What Microsoft is doing to “dive much deeper” is using a system-level subscription list, fetching scheduler, and parser. While I can understand the nicety of the fetching scheduler and maybe the parser, I’m personally ambivalent about the system-wide subscription list. Still, there’s nothing preventing a developer from implementing RSS functionality now.

The giant’s foray into the RSS world is clearly a threat to upstart RSS reader companies.

Which is it – are they allowing thousands of software developers to create programs that take advantage of feeds, or are they the two thousand pound gorilla that is clearly a threat to upstart companies?

Look, it’s great if Microsoft is including a feed reader in IE – every browser should have one, simply because if people use it, they will see the benefits of syndication. Don’t think, however, that a product bound into the operating system is going to quench everyone’s thirst for tools. People still choose Firefox over IE and Safari, Eudora over Outlook, Adium over iChat. Third parties can survive, even with core OS support for technologies and protocols.

But Microsoft’s mere presence in the market will do one thing that all the other companies combined haven’t been able to achieve yet: It will make RSS mainstream technology.

How this reads to you depends on if you’re an optimist or a pessimist. As a realist, I will go down both paths.

Optimists will tell you syndication has been mainstream for years – look at the level of syndication provided by major companies like BBC, New York Times, Google, Reuters, et cetera. Look at the number of feed readers available like My Yahoo, My MSN, Bloglines, NetNewsWire, Gmail clips, and the like. People use RSS without knowing it: Apple’s whizzy new screensaver in Tiger, syndicated accounts on LiveJournal (if you’re reading this on LJ, you’re using syndication), live bookmarks in Firefox, and more.

Syndication has been mainstream for years, if you look at it that way.

Pessimists will tell you that even with all these great tools out there, there still aren’t enough people actually using it. Syndication scares people. Feeds are too hard to find, too hard to subscribe to via a standard method, and lead to quirks when you deal with things like character encoding and updated posts. None of the things Microsoft are doing – the features in Longhorn and IE, as well as the extensions to the formats – change any of this.

From this standpoint, syndication will never be mainstream.

Point being made: Either you can believe syndication is already mainstream and Microsoft’s work isn’t going to change anything, or you can believe that syndication isn’t mainstreams for reasons such that Microsoft’s work isn’t going to change anything. Net result: Microsoft’s work is not going to change anything.

Debated Puzzled Over

Backwards Logic

I’ve been on the Internet for eight and a half years. Not long compared to some people, but long enough to have seen a lot of really, really confusing things. Things in every category about every topic imaginable.

Today, I have had to re-adjust my logic meter, because obviously there is a new zero point.

Adam Curry – yes, the ex-MTV VJ Adam Curry – is taking a stand in the RSS/n-echo war. To quote Homer Simpson, a freaky stand. Let’s dissect this.


A Holy Shit Moment – RSS + NNTP

Rands often talks about his HOLY SHIT LIST on his blog, and I’ve been meaning to do one lately. But today, I had one, and I just need to share.

As of late, I’ve noticed my blogroll has been spiralling out of control. This leads to frequent pruning and then forgetting about sites I probably should be reading more often (, for instance).

So I started thinking about my options. I had tried NetNewsWire Lite, and while it was working for a bit, there were enough interface quirks that when it thrashed my subscription list, I threw my hands up and shouted “FUCK IT”. I tried tinkering with the mt-rssfeed plugin, but that wasn’t doing what I wanted it to either; no distinction between what I have read and what I hadn’t, plus messy crontab configuration.

Somehow, I remembered in the back of my mind a conversation I had with Jeff Vinocur about 2-3 months ago where he was looking for something to do RSS aggregation without the hassle of using another app. Jeff redefines “usenet junkie”, so he ended up finding a piece of software called nntprss. As I understood it at the time, nntprss took rss feeds and propagated it to a news server or something, so I was frightened off.

In fact, it’s even more simple than that. nntprss takes a list of RSS feeds (given to it through a web front end which it also provides), parses them at intervals you set, and expresses them as newsgroups on its own NNTP server.
Today, I downloaded it, and this is what ensued:

Hmm, nice platform-indifferent install. It’s Java, though…hrm.
*type type type*
Hmm, easy enough to get running.
*click type click*
Nice web interface…let me add a few feeds and fire up MT-Newswatcher.
*click click click click click type type type*

It was like an epiphany. The light shone down from the Heavens, and I realized at long last how easy it was going to be to handle 80+ RSS feeds at once. I realized how nice it will be to categorize my feeds into a hierarchy. To pull it all in at a glance and see what I have to read using an interface I’ve been used to since 1995. All this using a protocol that’s been around for at least 20 years, where there are tons of robust tools to use on top of it.

It’s not perfect yet; I really want to see the ability to have one rss feed post to multiple groups, thus allowing me to aggregate groups of friends into one newsgroup. But this is version 0.3. It’s not even close to done, and right now it’s pretty damn good. And even though this thing is cranking away and checking RSS feeds nearly every second, it’s using at 0.8% of my CPU when it’s active. For comparison, the Palm Desktop software, which I don’t use with any regularity, eats up twice that.

Holy shit indeed.

(Anyone who wants to try it, I’ve been happily letting people onto the news server to see what it’s like; grab a news client and drop me an email or a comment and I’ll send you my IP.)