The vast majority of Internet users don't use RSS feeds. Only 6% of Internet users consume RSS, according to a Forrester study released in September. That percentage tripled year-over-year, which is enormously fast growth--but still, 6%?
I spent a couple of days this week at the Syndicate conference in San Francisco, and I asked people at the conference why they think RSS adoption is so small. Based on those discussions, and my own thinking, I've come to the following conclusions:Most people don't even know what the heck RSS is.
RSS is sort of like bulk e-mail, in that it sends you information in little pieces, which you can read in a client that looks very much like an e-mail client, with author information, headlines, and message body. As a matter of fact, some e-mail clients support RSS.
However, there are significant differences between RSS and e-mail:
With RSS, you control the subscription. Subscribe when you want to, delete the subscription when you want; it's entirely controlled by your client. To subscribe to an RSS feed, all you need to do is just input a URL into your RSS reader. You're not at the mercy of an e-mail list administrator, who might process your subscription in a timely fashion, and might not, and might sell your e-mail address to spammers.
RSS is much more anonymous than e-mail. You're giving out minimal information about yourself when you subscribe. On the other hand, with a mailing list, you're giving out, well, your e-mail address.
RSS can be displayed in lots of different ways. Some RSS readers look like e-mail clients, others are e-mail clients. You can use RSS to display headlines from one site on another site. For example, if you go to our new Windows Tech Center, and scroll down a bit, you'll find a section called Microsoft Security Bulletins. That section is populated directly by a feed from Microsoft. Similarly Yahoo and Google's customizable home pages are populated by RSS feeds.
You can have an RSS reader built into your Web browser, or as an add-on to your Web browser, or a bar on your desktop. I'm sure I'm missing lots of option for consuming RSS.
People think RSS is too time-consuming.
That completely baffles me, because RSS actually saves time. The reason to use RSS is to be able to keep up with many different sites fast. It's great for sites updated daily (like InformationWeek), because it offers you a fast way to see what's new--and only what's new--since the last time you visited.
It's even better for keeping up with sites that are updated irregularly, on no fixed schedule, and might go hours, days, weeks or months between posting. Manually visiting sites like that in your Web browser, just to check for updates, is a waste of time, but an RSS reader will do it automatically, and only bother you when there's something new.
It's too hard to subscribe.
There are dozens of different RSS readers out there, and every one of them has a slightly different way of subscribing. Many sites (like this one) have links on them that people click and then they get a whole lot of gobbledygook instead of a readable page. I expect that will change as RSS readers become standardized, and as Microsoft supports RSS in its clients.
Many of the vendors I saw at the Syndicate conference are addressing these problems by sidestepping them. They offer tools that are already preconfigured to consume RSS; the user doesn't have to mess around with signing up for subscriptions. In many cases users don't even know that they're getting RSS, they just know that they're getting information and don't know or care how it arrives. One example of that technology is KnowNow, which offers a browser toolbar and desktop alerts to let users set up watch lists for information, and alert the user immediately when the information arrives. The information can be frivolous--like the availability of specific concert tickets on CraigsList. Or it can be business-critical, like the arrival of sales leads that need to be jumped on fast before a competitive company grabs up a customer. NewsGator and Pluck both offer services that allow enterprises to set up packages of information sources for their users, and push that information out to desktop; the sources of the information arrives to the enterprise in RSS, but users don't need to know that.
Until RSS is better understood and implemented, RSS advocates, like myself and the vendors at this conference, have to spend a lot of time just explaining and selling RSS--telling people why they should even care about RSS--before they get around to selling their particular product or service. That's a lot like the way the Internet was in 1993.