Syndication wars: The elephant and the tiny little mice

I had promised an essay on the so-called syndication wars–those battles between the proponents of RSS .9x and RSS 1.0 and the later battles between the proponents of RSS 2.0 and Atom. However, there is something sad about this little war now; old warriers have quietly faded away, in exhaustion and indifference, and the winners can’t wear ribbons as their chest have grown too big.

As for the rest of us, well we fight other battles, either indifferent or perhaps more likely burnt out by the constant friction associated with syndication feeds. Yes, those simple little feeds that let people know that you’ve updated and what you may or may not be saying — so that Scoble can read 100,000 feeds a day and scare the newbies.

Yet there is one more gasp to this war, though it’s a sad one, and more in the nature of a funeral mass or perhaps a wake. Who are the winners? No one really, not even those who fought so strongly. In the end it is just so much technology, and the rest of us have moved on to knitting and trying to overthrow a president.

Tim Bray suggests that Atom is almost finished and ready to be called, what, done? Well, as done as can be without foundering into the realms of inventiveness of RDF and OWL and all that Semantic Webness stuff:

I’ve been involved in several different standardization projects across the years, of which one was overwhelmingly successful: XML. And in the process of designing XML, we invented more or less nothing. We took an existing standard, SGML, parts of which worked well and other parts of which were klunky, or expensive, or incomprehensible, or all three. We threw away everything but the pieces that were known to work and added pretty-good Unicode support, i.e. something else that had been proven to work. We tightened up some definitions and added some convenience features and threw away lots and lots and lots of options.

Ever since then, I’ve been convinced that standards organizations shouldn’t try to invent technology. (The W3C, which is jam-packed with super-smart people, has produced some horrible, damaging standards when they’ve tried to get too inventive.) The right role for a standards body is to wait till the implementors have deployed things and worked out the hard bits, then write down the consensus on what works and what doesn’t.

He goes on to say that Atom really took the best bits of RSS 2.0 and added a few more good bits and dropped the bad bits. This is all technical talk, you see, for saying that Atom really isn’t much different from RSS 2.0 in the great scheme of things.

But I notice something else as I look around — the loss of the original spirits behind Atom. Sam Ruby is still there, but in a quiet secondary role. And Mark Pilgrim left a cryptic note about other hobbies, and vanished into that netherworld of a weblogger who may, or may not have, quit.

Perhaps they are all tired, and who could blame them? This topic is nothing but contention, but now the brangles have grown dusty and the thorns dulled from use. I read through the entries at the Atom Syndication mailing list and see ones like this where the author, Dare Obasanjo writes:

I’m not trying to convincing anyone of anything. Come
to think of it I’m not even sure why I’m still
bothering to read or post to this list.


But this was initiated by another writer, Robert Sayre, who contributed this gem:

A plausible theory, but you have no way of substantiating it. You’re posting on a mailing list full of people who want Atom to exist for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure why you think you’re going to convince them otherwise. You’re just wasting our time with this trash. Over and over and over again.

To which thread Danny Ayers writes:

challenge, perhaps?

Quoting Dare from earlier in the thread:
On the other hand, there isn’t much I want from an XML
syndication format that can’t be done with one of the
existing flavors of RSS (1.0 or 2.0) and extensions.
So I won’t waste your time listing the features I’d
like to see in a syndication format.

That is exactly what I found exasperating, that his sights were set on
what could be done already, not what could be fixed or *improved* over
1.0 and 2.0. People like Dare, Don Park and others are unlikely to see
much benefit as long the group aims merely for
lowest-common-denominator RSS 2.0, patched and rebranded.

Ok, I think it would take considerably more than a months of Sundays
to say, persuade Dare of the benefits of the RDF model or whatever, he
has a strong naysaying streak. But if at the end of the day this WG
doesn’t come up with a deliverable that Dare could confidently take to
MS and say “this is much better” then we’ve missed something.

At the end, though, there are those who seek to unite and smooth waters, and one such is Henry Story (who I think authors this weblog) who writes:

It may be weird, but I think everyone here has been looking at different parts of a huge elephant, and we are just about to see the elephant.

All it requires is a little compromise, a little flexibility of mind, a little openness to the new, and we will have something that is truly great. The RSS wars will seem funny when looked at it from the other side.

And speaking of elephants and great guffaws of laughter, Dave Winer joins in with:

Tim Bray suggests that Atom might nearly be finished. I read his comments carefully, and find the benefits of the possibly-final Atom to be vague, and the premise absolutely incorrect. Unlike SGML, RSS has been widely deployed, successfully, by users of all levels of technical expertise. There are many thousands of popular RSS feeds updating every day, from technology companies like Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Sun and Oracle, big publishing companies like Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Newsweek, Time, BBC, Guardian, etc, exactly the kinds of enterprises that his employer serves. It’s also widely used by today’s opinion leaders, the bloggers. Where SGML was beached and floundering, RSS is thriving and growing. So to conclude that RSS needs the same help that SGML did, is simply not supported by facts.

But then Dave wants one and only one syndication feed: his syndication feed, RSS 2.0, which is what started all of the wars in the first place. Which is odd, really, when you consider in the same day’s posts is a wrist slapping to Microsoft for their search engine rollout (something about bloggers not being able to talk to reporters) where he writes:

We desperately need a two-party system in search, because search is proving to be the key technology in the software platform of the future, and unless Microsoft shows up with something differentiated and competent, we’re all hosed. The last thing we need is to trade one monopoly for another.

Now what would be amazing is if you regrouped and LEARNED from this, and let’s get some killer features into this product, things that really disrupt the market and get people thinking that search engines could be much more than they are today. We talked about them, and for now I’m going to do you a favor and not talk about them publicly.

But before you can disrupt the market you yourselves need some disruption.

Let’s revisit that last line, shall we?

But before you can disrupt the market you yourselves need some disruption.

Which rather takes us back full circle to the start of all of this. But you all don’t really care these syndication battles much anymore, which just shows that you all have grown up and moved on to other things–such as digging in dirt of one kind or another. But I had promised to write an essay on the syndication wars, and here it is.

More reading at:

Ken MacLeod’s pull together post

Ben Hammersley article at the Guardian

My own site has too many entries, which you can find by searching on Echo or Atom, though you’ll get other, probably more interesting writings amidst the syndication posts. Same can be said for Sam’s, Mark’s, Dave’s, Tim’s, Danny’s, and others who have been brushed by this thin, sickly pale, former shadow of itself pachyderm.

Cross-posted at The Kitchen

PS Want to see a boy’s night out in weblogging? Check this post and associated comments at Don Park’s.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email