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7/3/2006
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Contextual Syndication

I am a big fan of RSS having over 240 feeds in my Bloglines account. Lately, however, I haven't been keeping up with all of them. I could blame this lapse on a busy spring schedule but I doubt I will return to reading much more than the 50 or so feeds that I keep up with now. As a side note, I am also finding myself adding (and reading) more Technorati or PubSub searches rather than individual feeds.

We have also been using AirSet for our family calendar and I have been dabbling with Google Calendar. Along with being a great way to manage a family calendar, these services also support subscriptions to public calendars. For example, the Detroit Pistons schedule was constantly updated on our AirSet calendar throughout the NBA playoffs and I now have the Detroit Tigers schedule taking its place.

Calendar subscriptions (often called webcal) are much like RSS subscriptions. Both methods poll a web page. RSS feeds are RSS-formatted web pages and webcal feeds are iCalendar-formatted web pages. Bloglines poll my RSS feeds periodically to check for new items and AirSet polls my webcal feeds for changes in their associated calendar.

Beyond the technical similarities, the two subscription methods couldn't be more different. RSS aggregators tend to look like stripped-down email readers. In fact, many email readers now support RSS feeds (with more coming, like Outlook 2007). Webcal subscriptions look like…well…calendars.

I think webcal feeds may soon play a more prominent role in corporations than RSS feeds. The reasons are simple: webcal subscriptions take care of themselves and are contextual (they show up where they are needed). RSS subscriptions, at least with most of today's aggregators, are treated like email. And who wants more email? The only thing holding back webcal in the enterprise is browser support and a standard calendar application on the PC (coming with IE7 and Microsoft Vista).

I came to this conclusion through two events. First, I recently added Weather Underground's webcal feed for the local weather forecast to our family calendar. So now the weather forecast shows up on our family calendar alongside all of our other planned activities. Daily forecasts are presented as an all-day event with the title being a brief description of the weather (partly cloudy, chance of thunderstorm, etc.) along with the day's projected high and low temperature. Clicking into the event will find a longer narrative more fully describing the day's forecast.

Simple? Yes, but it is very effective. I am sure there are other places where the weather forecast would be useful but on a shared family calendar it is wonderful. Maybe you are a tennis fan and would like to know the weather forecast for Wimbledon this week since it is common for matches to be delayed due to rain.

As an alternative I could use Weather Underground's RSS feed for my local weather forecast. However, I counted 64 updates in that feed on just one day. These show up as 64 unread items in Bloglines. For someone well versed in reading RSS feeds I can certainly train myself to ignore all but the latest feed item. But, try to sell that to the most important user of the family calendar, my wife. She doesn't use a personal RSS aggregator but is now an enthusiastic user of webcal because the information is coming to her where she most needs it.

So, thinking there may be something to this I emailed my friend Charlie Wood of Spanning Partners. Charlie is a big believer in syndicating enterprise information and has been advocating this from his Moonwatcher blog for some time now. Spanning Partners offers Spanning Salesforce, a service that provides RSS feeds containing new and changing information from a Salesforce.com account.

With this innovative service sales professionals can have their Salesforce.com information (Leads, Opportunities, Cases, etc.) delivered to their preferred RSS aggregator. Access to this information is streamlined by not requiring the use of Salesforce.com's web interface meaning critical information gets to where it is needed quickly. You can even use an RSS aggregator on a mobile device (like a Blackberry) and have this information sent to you virtually anywhere. Spanning Salesforce is a fantastic service and illustrates the value of front-ending enterprise applications with RSS.

Spanning Salesforce recently started beta testing support for webcal feeds enabling users to automatically add and update Salesforce.com events on their webcal compatible calendars.  In response to my email asking how this was going Charlie said "the webcal calendar support is one of the most popular features of Spanning Salesforce" and these customers are "my most enthusiastic supporters". Most manage their calendar with Apple's iCal, but a few use Mozilla Sunbird.

This is why I think webcal subscriptions may play a more prominent role in corporations (at least, for awhile) than RSS. Dates are everywhere on an intranet. Due dates, project milestones, corporate or departmental events, and many other sources are all good candidates for syndication using webcal.

However, I still think RSS has a bright future on the corporate intranet. RSS has shown us the value of simple, lightweight syndication. Webcal is now showing us the importance of syndicating contextual information. Without context then we are leaving it up to the end-user to sort through this information, just like email.

RSS shines for distributing content such as blogs and news articles and we will certainly continue hearing about successful implementations in these cases. However, we need to be careful when adding RSS feeds to applications since, eventually, the sheer number of these may become overwhelming to the corporate worker and simply add to the information overload already being processed in email.

To be successful in the long run we need to add contextual information to RSS feeds. Microformats such as hCalendar appear to be a good start (and may eventually replace webcal) but consider how corporate workers manage their information. How about microformats that handle project or program information? This would enable client programs or automated dashboards to update their information intelligently, without requiring manual processing or complex messaging rules.

Can we get to the point where RSS feeds take care of themselves and are contextual like webcal? Or will we continue to expect the user to process RSS feeds like email?

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