As July 1 approaches
Will the tech industry learn how to cooperate on an open format, or will the major companies play a game of winner-take-all, in which none of them gets anything in return for their efforts?
The last few years, in which Google has come to dominate the RSS market, have been very bad for RSS. I say that because a technology with tremendous potential for decentralizing news flow became one of the Internet’s most singularly centralized technologies. We couldn’t move in RSS-land because any change had to be implemented by Google. And Google’s only ideas seemed to be about efficiently killing RSS, not about improving it, making it work better. As Google’s involvement neared its end, all you would hear from the tech press were gloating cheers that RSS had died. Twitter was the new RSS. Never did anyone say how actively the other big tech companies had conspired to kill it.
If RSS had been a product, the advent of Twitter would have been its moment of greatest glory — because it would have forced Twitter to remain open to competition. Twitter’s business model might have been simplifying and rationalizing RSS, which RSS certainly needed, and they would have been entitled to get hugely rich for pulling that off.
Had RSS been a product, subscription would have become easy, not an increasingly complex maze of negative feedback, thanks to deliberate sidetracks from the leading browser vendors. If you doubt this, try clicking on this link to an RSS feed, and see how hard it is to just view the contents of the file. In Chrome, Safari, or Firefox there’s no way to do it. In this one area, apparently, Microsoft wins the prize, and all they had to do was not screw with RSS, and let the browser render it as it would any other file. Whether Google, Apple, and Mozilla actively wanted to kill RSS doesn’t matter — the net effect was the same. How can you use it if you can’t even click a link to begin the subscription process?
So now, here we are at a crossroads. There are lots of ways RSS could improve. The question is this: Will the tech industry learn how to cooperate on an open format, or will the major companies play a game of winner-take-all, in which none of them gets anything in return for all their efforts?
My company, Small Picture, is working on authoring tools to create new RSS feeds. And I have a private on-the-side project to help foster the development of new river-of-news aggregators, both commercial and open-source.
I would love to see RSS achieve some of its great potential. There are still millions of feeds being actively updated every day. This is a treasure that we can build on, instead of watching the tech industry fight to kill it once again.
Not sure whether I should be optimistic. But if the tech industry can turn this corner, then there’s nothing we can’t do. But having spent 40-plus years in this industry, I don’t have much cause for optimism.