Last week, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 7, Release Candidate 1 for Windows XP. The browser appears to be on schedule for a Q4 release, unless a major problem is uncovered. There are many enhancements to the software, but my interest in IE7 lies with its RSS support and how IE7 acts as the delivery vehicle for Microsoft’s Windows RSS Platform. For many enterprise users, the upgrade to IE7 will be their first exposure to a publish-and-subscribe model based on XML syndication (e.g., RSS). The infrastructure that Microsoft will begin to roll out with IE7 (additional capabilities will appear in Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007), has significant implications to IT strategists looking to transform communication channels, provide more flexible information delivery and help address attention management concerns of end users.
Microsoft currently has a three-pronged approach to RSS. The centerpiece of its strategy is the Windows RSS Platform (see Figure 1). The Windows RSS Platform will provide infrastructure that generalizes certain RSS functions, making them available to all desktop applications. For Microsoft, applications that will take advantage of this infrastructure include both Office Outlook 2007 and Internet Explorer 7 (IE7). The Windows RSS Platform also supports interactions a user might have with online services. For Microsoft, this will eventually include its Windows Live Mail desktop. APIs enable any RSS-based desktop service to integrate with the Windows RSS Platform. (e.g., Windows Vista Sidebar Feed Gadget).
With IE7, Microsoft will provide a lightweight-reader capability that leverages the Windows RSS Platform (see Figure 2). As enterprises upgrade desktops to IE7, the installation process will include setup of the Windows RSS Platform. Windows IE7, therefore, does little in the way of explicit RSS support. The user experience is straightforward:
1. Discovery: An RSS icon indicates that the website has feeds available.
2. Subscription: Users can click the RSS icon to preview the feed and then subscribe to it. (This preview capability is available outside Windows IE7.)
3. Management: Users can manage their Windows IE7 feeds in a new Favorites Center, which incorporates a Common Feed List.
4. Reading: A feed reading view allows users to consume feeds with a soft alert of updated feeds in the feed list pane (updates appear in bold).
5. Synchronization: Users can synchronize the feeds they subscribe to in IE7 with those stored in Office Outlook 2007.
Because no server back-end manages network utilization, Microsoft has implemented RSS in such a way within Windows IE7 that update cycles for RSS feeds will alter themselves and not check for feed updates precisely as specified by users (e.g., something set for 12:00 might actually synchronize at 11:58). This “salting the interval” will disperse the checking of feed updates across large numbers of users. Also, Windows IE7 will not look at a site when it knows that the site has not been updated (based on the RSS file information). The Download Engine within the Windows RSS Platform also includes several capabilities, outlined here, that improve network usage. For further information, the Microsoft RSS team maintains a very active blog.
As organizations begin to deploy Office Outlook 2007, Microsoft will create a new inbox folder that is dedicated to subscriptions. This design approach will extend a user’s e-mail experience to RSS feeds (see Figure 3), making the transition to a pub/sub model transparent for many users. Office Outlook 2007 will also include administration features for users to manage their subscription lifecycle. Other users, however, are likely to prefer their RSS feeds to be outside their e-mail experience and will rely on Windows IE7 or a dedicated RSS reader. Some users will switch between multiple clients as well (e.g., mobile).
It is important to note that Office Outlook 2007 will not depend on the Windows RSS Platform. Instead, it will implement its own RSS subsystem. This will remove any dependency between Office Outlook 2007 and Windows IE7—which is important to users of other browsers. People who use both Office Outlook 2007 and IE7 will rely on a synchronization process between the two products at the Common Feed List level. This integration will let users subscribe in one tool and read in another.
For a pub/sub model to become broadly successful, it must have system capabilities that are generalized as infrastructure to provide common services across a range of applications. This is the core of what the Windows RSS Platform will provide. Its three major components (Common Feed List, Download Engine, and Common Store) represent infrastructure functionality that not only provides universal services to Microsoft’s own applications but also creates consistent desktop integration and application scenarios available to third parties that unify a user’s experience with syndication feeds. This will take time; even Microsoft’s own applications will have to incorporate more complete support over multiple release cycles.