Microsoft Throws RSS Coming-Out Party

After existing in relative obscurity since 1997, then dancing in the footlights before the Internet cognoscenti for a couple of years, RSS was finally blessed by Microsoft today.
A few years hence, we may look at this day as the day RSS finally came of age.

After existing in relative obscurity since 1997, then dancing in the footlights before the Internet cognoscenti for a couple of years, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) was finally blessed by Microsoft today.

The software giant announced a series of RSS-oriented functionalities for Windows Longhorn designed to support RSS from inside Windows in much the same way Windows 98, ME, 2000, and XP have supported Web browser services.

Microsoft needs to be a tad careful about staking out new territory in the client space from within the operating system. According to Microsoft Group Product Manager, Megan Kidd, the company has no plans to include an RSS-reader program with Windows Longhorn. But, while she didn't want to make the direct comparison to Firefox's Live Bookmarks, the forthcoming interface of Internet Explorer 7, which will be released for Windows XP as well as delivered in Longhorn, will sport RSS-reading user interface features that approximate Mozilla's Live Bookmarks, including an "illuminated icon" on the browser toolbar when an RSS feed is available from the current Web page, the ability to save RSS feed URLs to Favorites, and the ability to recall them later and display them in IE's Web window. A demonstration of some of these features was given today at Chris Pirillo's Gnomedex 5.0 in Seattle.

But user interface is only a small part of Microsoft's announcement. The Longhorn OS will contain three core services, the Common RSS Feed List, the Common RSS Data Store, and the RSS Platform Sync Engine. Although they'll be invisible to end users, each provides a service available to any app that make use of RSS 2.0 functionality. The Common RSS Feed List is literally an index of all RSS Feeds captured by any application on the computer. The Common RSS Data Store is like a Web cache for all types of RSS-fed data that any application can use — enabling non-browser applications to cache data. And the RSS Platform Sync Engine is a new automatic background service that works to refresh RSS-fed content used by any application. All three services will have openly published APIs, so any software developer will be able to leverage them in Longhorn applications.

At Gnomedex today, Microsoft demonstrated example event calendar and photo streaming/photo screensaver solutions based on the RSS functionality planned for Longhorn. Real-time sales data is another obvious application, and enterprises who standardize on Longhorn will almost certainly find other possible uses.

Simple List Extensions

Perhaps the most interesting announcement, though, concerns a set of new functionality Microsoft calls Simple List Extensions. Designed expressly for Web sites, such as publishers or retailers, the Microsoft enhancement to the RSS 2.0 spec focuses on list data — specifically ordering of list data based not on chronology, but on other criteria, like a rated ranking, play lists, a retailer wish list, or most popular. Perhaps the best part of Microsoft's Simple List Extensions is that they allow publishers to embed additional data into a feed to help support alternative RSS ordering, including data points like price, sales rank, average customer rating, and merchandise type.

Increasingly, Web sites are using XML or RSS feeds to stream data from one place to another. As someone who works as an Internet publisher, I can tell you that, if they're implemented properly — XML and RSS feeds are both A) difficult to control from an ordering perspective and B) extremely easy to implement. Microsoft's extensions are absolutely on the mark. (Check out Microsoft's press release for more information about Microsoft's announced RSS support in Windows Longhorn.)

But even if Microsoft extensions are a good idea, is the software giant employing it's old "embrace and extend" take-ownership strategy? Take away the "take-ownership" from that last sentence, and I'd have to say a resounding ... probably. But Microsoft has gone to greater than usual pains in committing to make the Simple List Extensions freely available to all. Yes, Microsoft wrote them. And no, it's not waiting around for any standards body to say amen. But the software company has released its extensions to the Creative Commons Developers license, the same license under which Dave Winer's RSS 2.0 spec was released.

I asked Megan Kidd whether third parties could make changes to Microsoft's Simple List Extensions. After double checking the point to be sure, she replied that anyone can "tweak, remix, or extend the Simple List Extensions so long as they check their result back to Creative Commons and also attribute Microsoft."

Beta 1 of Windows Longhorn is due out "this summer," and my bet is that it will arrive no later than late July/early August. At the very least the Internet Explorer-based user interface will be evident in that release. But the rest will probably wait for Beta 2 of Longhorn, which we aren't likely to see before the beginning of next year.

Brass Tacks

It would be all too easy to bash Microsoft on this one. But, the truth is, Microsoft is just reading the tea leaves. Unlike everyone else, they're doing something about it — something I've always admired about the company. RSS isn't a toy; it's Web-page harvesting mega-tool. While it may not be the tool that utterly supplants Web browsing and email newsletters on the majority of desktops, RSS offers significant utility for both Web publishers and end users. RSS ain't no fad, folks.

Microsoft's embrace has sometimes been a double-edged sword in past. But that doesn't seem to be the issue here. The one glaring hole in the equation is the usual thing. You need to run Longhorn to take advantage of most of this functionality. More importantly, most people will need to be running Longhorn before application makers, perhaps other than Microsoft, are likely to build apps that take advantage of the new Windows services for RSS. Finally, even the Simple List Extensions require new versions of IE, Firefox, and every other browser in order for their advantages to be displayed. IE 6.0, for example, will just ignore any data or ordering conveyed by the Simple List Extensions. So this is all about a very long-term strategy. There won't be much instant gratification.

But all that said, I see no downside to Microsoft's plans for RSS support in Longhorn and IE 7.0 on Windows XP. In fact, it's all good. (Did I just write that?) Maybe RSS is finally growing up. It's about time.

Scot Finnie is the editor of the TechWeb Pipelines, the author of Scot's Newsletter, and the Windows and Office columnist for PC Today magazine. He's been covering Windows and other operating systems for over 20 years.

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