My conversation with Mr. Safe

Mr. Safe: Hey, I've been reading about that RSS thing you were telling me about. It was mentioned recently in the New York Times, and also the Wall Street Journal. I'm thinking maybe it's a safe choice after all.

Jon: Not so fast.

Mr. Safe: Oh, why? What's up?

Jon: Well, a bunch of people in the RSS community have decided to push the reset button, and redesign the format from the ground up. The new thing is called Echo.

Mr. Safe: But I thought you said RSS was a mature and tested format, the only real problems being confusion about which version to use, a potential copyright issue, and no official stamp of approval from a standards body.

Jon: I did, but I also said there were political problems. This is mainly about the politics.

Mr. Safe: Uh oh.

Jon: Look, it'll be fine, really. There are a bunch of really smart people, and they're collaborating in a Wiki.

Mr. Safe: A what-i?

Jon: It's an online blackboard, sort of, where everybody gets to scribble their thoughts, and reorganize other people's thoughts.

Mr. Safe: How many people are actively involved?

Jon: I don't know, fifty maybe, it's hard to tell.

Mr. Safe: Look, I'm no expert, but are the best Internet standards really designed by committees of fifty on shared blackboards?

Jon: Like I said, this is politically necessary. RSS has been handled in a far less collaborative -- some say dictatorial -- manner. There's a huge amount of resentment over that, and it's fueling this new movement. So the redesign is taking place in a fully-transparent environment -- a smoke-free room..

Mr. Safe: Will it still be called RSS?

Jon: No.

Mr. Safe: OK, but will it be backward-compatible with RSS?

Jon: It doesn't look that way.

Mr. Safe: Look, I'm no expert, but don't Internet standards take years -- not weeks -- to mature?

Jon: Yes.

Mr. Safe: Uh oh.

Jon: It'll be fine, really. I'll tell you the dirty little secret about all of this: the RSS format is kind of trivial when you come right down to it. Although there will be a lot of disruption and fallout, the blog community could probably reconstitute itself around a completely different format in a week or two.

Mr. Safe: So this isn't rocket-science technology?

Jon: I'll tell you another secret. You know that billion-dollar application the Wall Street Journal was talking about? Replacing broadcast email with RSS? That would work just fine with even the most primitive version of RSS. Hell, it'd work fine with the progenitor of RSS, an old Microsoft format called CDF.

Mr. Safe: Really? Microsoft had a horse in this race? What happened?

Jon: They couldn't grasp the idea of personal publishing, and made the CDF network into a small club for rich media titans. It took somebody like Dave Winer to see that the real opportunity was to radically lower the barrier to entry, and empower everybody to publish as well as subscribe.

Mr. Safe: Who's Dave Winer?

Jon: He's the guy everybody in this new post-RSS movement is pissed off at. And believe me, they have their reasons. Even though the RSS format is not the critical thing here, as I've explained, Dave's been an incredible control freak about it.

Mr. Safe: So if the format doesn't matter so much, where's the magic?

Jon: The magic is in knowing how to use RSS. Knowing what to read and write, and how, and when. Absorbing and transmitting awareness.

Mr. Safe: Uh oh. This sounds like that touch-feely Wiki thing you were talking about.

Jon: Well, kind of. Anyway, Dave showed everybody how to use RSS. That's his crowning achievement in my book. Not the format. Not even the tools his company created to make it easy for anybody to write for the RSS network. Like I said, this is simple stuff, and now there are lots of tools. One guy, to make a point about simplicity, wrote a blogging tool in 30 lines of Perl. So it's not about the format, and it's not about the tools. It's about a new way of communicating, one that's defined by personal publishing and subscribing, and that empowers writers and readers as never before. Dave knew that earlier, and still knows it better, than anyone.

Mr. Safe: Hmm. It sounds kind of abstract. But you're saying this touchy-feely stuff is actually starting to resonate with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal?

Jon: Yes, finally, after about four years of gestation. It's a hard thing to describe, and it takes a long time to sink in, but a lot of people -- me included -- are as excited about this now as we were in 1994 about the Web.

Mr. Safe: And now they're going to hit the reset button on the format?

Jon: Apparently.

Mr. Safe: Do you think that's a good idea?

Jon: I'm never a fan of fixing what ain't broken. Arguably, though, there was no other way forward in this case. The worm at the core of the weblog apple had to be extracted. It's true that vast numbers of yet-to-be-written RSS applications need no more than what RSS already does, or can be extended to do using the mechanisms it sanctions. It's also true that vast numbers of yet-to-be-written RSS applications will require RSS to evolve. It had to become possible for that evolution to occur in an open and vendor-neutral way, and when the dust settles I think it will be possible.

Mr. Safe: But is this evolution, or is it revolution?

Jon: Good question. Now that the dam has broken, Dave has endorsed the new effort. It must have been an incredibly hard thing to do. I have a teenage daughter and when it's time for her to leave the nest, in a couple of years, I hope I'll handle that transition as graciously as Dave is handling this one. Meanwhile, the Echo designers are -- not surprisingly -- converging on a core that looks a lot like RSS. So far they've discovered that a blog entry has a link, an author, a publication date, and one or more semantically-equivalent content items. Any day now, they'll conclude that it also has a description. There's really not much mystery about this stuff.

Mr. Safe: So what's the safe choice?

Jon: I don't know. Would you feel better if this Echo process were a continuation of RSS rather than a recreation of it?

Mr. Safe: Yes.

Jon: Me too.

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