Of Microsoft, RSS and Longhorn
Analysis We thought we'd let the dust settle before examining Microsoft's announcement that it will incorporate RSS support in Longhorn, and the upcoming IE7 release (in a service pack for XP).
Why? Because the haze cast by the conflicting claims and counter-claims means that you're not going to get much sense of what's really happening hours after. And, besides, it's not as if Longhorn, or IE7, are out there waiting to be used right now.
The announcement at Gnomedex confers instant respectability on the six-year-old format. More than that, Microsoft seems to be getting past its old, ingrained habit of "Embrace, Extend, Extinguish" that it used to such good effect on Java and Netscape (and allegedly others such as Kerberos, CSS, and way back to Altair Basic.) At that Wikipedia page, someone has prematurely added RSS as the latest EEE victim.
And why? Because Microsoft has - because habit dies hard - suggested a set of extensions to RSS (to solve known problems so things like updated lists will, um, update properly).
On the other hand, the extensions specs are open, easy to implement, and those who don't want to use them can ignore them. (Many people have leapt with delight on the fact that the list specification is being offered under a Creative Commons licence. Sure, but that doesn't mean Redmond has to stick with it, people, or that you can influence it in any way. Smarten up.)
But Longhorn's RSS won't just be a nice button in the URL bar of IE7, though it'll be that too. (The latter fact has annoyed some Apple developers, who see it as a direct copy of their work - here for Safari, here for Delicious Library.)
There'll be an RSS API in Longhorn, so that developers can pull in feeds and push them through to other apps. One demo at Gnomedex showed such a feed - of a conference schedule from the web - being channeled through to a calendar. (Though we sort of thought that was the point of the .ics format. And has nobody come across RSSCalendar before? Perhaps not.)
Let's give you a top line now, and then delve into some detail. Who are the winners? Microsoft (attracts attention from developers, gives Latehorn a smidgen of desirability); Microsoft's spinoff bits such as MSN and MSN Spaces (will be in the preselected RSS feeds in IE7); big media organisations (will also be in preselected feeds - for a fee, we feel sure); Google, which will be able to serve ever so many more AdSense adverts via RSS feeds, to so many more millions; pr0n merchants, who are surely even now realising that RSS will be a splendid way to get their wares under the wire into corporations. Erotic podcasts, anyone?
Losers: Google (whose preferred Atom feed format, used by its Blogger subsidiary, will just wither); authors of little shareware newsreader apps for Windows ("You heard the declaration that this business is now closed," said Bob Wyman, head of the startup PubSub, which aggregates feeds); people who like to read the full text of a blog feed in their newsreader, rather than visiting a site (imagine a world where everyone wants your blog feed; your hosting fees will be astronomical, even for text); anyone who doesn't aggregate their feeds properly (as became a slight problem last year when Microsoft's own RSS service almost fell over).
Oh, and eternal crowing rights have thus been conferred on Dave Winer, who came up with RSS 2.0 as a response to the rise of Atom, which he saw as a threat to his RSS 1.1 baby.
So why is Microsoft doing this? "We are betting big on RSS and creating support for it throughout Longhorn. We believe that RSS is so powerful that it needs to be in places other than RSS readers and browsers," Gary Schare, director of Strategic Product Management in the Windows division, told eWeek magazine.
But how big a change of direction is this for Microsoft and Longhorn, if any? Actually, none. Despite everything you've read, Longhorn remains largely an unknown. At Jupiter Research's Microsoft Monitor, Kieran Kelly comments that "the Longhorn user interface appears to be in a state of makeover... Microsoft has chucked a bunch of Longhorn features, making it hard for some folks to discern what difference the new Windows will have from XP. RSS as a platform gives Microsoft something concrete and positive to talk about Longhorn and at the right time, because developers and content providers need to know as soon as possible about RSS capabilities."
In other words, the RSS announcement is a convenient part of the shell game while yet more of the pre-announced Longhorn goes overboard. It's also taken the opportunity to swipe at Google by ignoring Atom in favour of RSS, despite Atom's benefits (such as its use of a namespace). But Atom has technical drawbacks, most particularly its beta-ness. For Microsoft, it's much easier to go with something that's fixed. RSS 2.0 may not be an IETF standard, but it's a marketplace standard, and that's good enough.
What though about those Simple List Extensions that Microsoft has put under a Creative Commons licence? Is it part of EEE, or just Redmond being - gasp - nice? Sure, Bill and Steve could run off into the sunset, adding extensions all over the place, and totally Softing it all up.
But here's the difference from previous embracing maneouvres: RSS is just some XML. Anyone can back-hack it. So it's not like an Office file format. Also, Microsoft doesn't control the supply or the demand.
True, this same argument could have been applied to HTML back when the browser wars were kicking off, and look how that turned out. The key difference though is that Internet Explorer interpreted existing HTML and CSS in its own weird way, and because it came on every Windows machine, yet wasn't open-sourced, nobody could work out what it was doing. But there won't be a closed RSS reader in Longhorn. Apart from Internet Explorer 7, of course. Ummm..
The other question, of course, is whether Microsoft has learned the lessons of tight integration with the OS that IE turned up - those delights such as self-loading Trojans, spyware and adware.
"RSS in the operating system and IE likely means that more people will be saying 'let's start looking for vulnerabilities,'" said Joe Pescatore, the Gartner research director.
Indeed, RSS is pretty indifferent to what it carries as an 'enclosure'. MP3? Fine. Executable file? Sure, why not? (Thus "appcasts" to update your installed applications; just imagine a "pull" RSS for your spyware. Yum.) The security question might seem remote right now, but so did it before IE was incorporated into Windows. And we all know how that turned out. ®