So many voices in this most tumultuous of the many tumultuous moments I've lived through, in my five years of involvement with the RSS phenomenon. So many people taking time away from friends and family, this weekend, to consider the matters at hand. So tempting to simplify it all as a silly-season little-endian/big-endian tempest in a teapot. So much at stake. Update: So sad the voice that started it all has, for now, gone silent. Further update: And now is back, thankfully.

Paul Philp:

Dave Winer and Userland Software lack the market power to create enough opportunity to incent competitors to co-operate. There is a fundamental mismatch between Winer's attempt to control the standard and his market power. It is this difficult reality Winer must now face.

Sam Ruby and his collaborators on the Echo project need to understand the economics of switching costs and the price of uncertainty. The RSS format is adopted broadly today. Many web sites, web tools, aggregators, programmers, editors and publishers know and trust the RSS format and name. They simply will not incur the risk and cost of switching to a new format unless the benefit is a full order of magnitude larger than the benefit of the current RSS format.


The predictable outcome of the RSS/Echo debate will be exactly the outcome the participants wanted to avoid in the beginning - Microsoft controlling the web content syndication format.

A vendor neutral industry standard based on the RSS format and name is the one path I see to avoid this outcome. [The Long Harvest]

A fascinating analysis worth reading in full. I mostly agree, but would qualify a few aspects. First, although there would be switching costs, they would be less onerous than format-related switching costs usually are -- because of the inherent nature of weblogs and RSS. The role of RSS so far is primarily that of a connection broker. People don't yet store and reuse RSS content. This can and should and will begin to change, for reasons, and in ways, I've described, but probably not soon enough to affect near-term switching costs. If such costs must be borne. They need not, and I continue to hope they will not.

Second, I'm suspicious of the notion that Microsoft -- or InsertYourFavoriteBigCoHere -- would seek control of the format. These companies are learning fast that formats, in the XML era, are kind of beside the point. Services and applications are what matter, and they can easily be adapted to any format so long as it is XML. The recent evolution of SOAP, for example, boils down to agreeing that the payload is an XML document, not an expression of protocols or APIs.

Patrick Logan:

The best thing to come of this recent RSS/Echo issue is that Sam Ruby has demonstrated the value of the Wiki Wiki Web.

What do we need, another Echo? Nope. We really need better applications. What happened to that Web Services revolution anyway, that the heat generated in 2003 is about HTTP? [Making it stick]

That weblog technology is not the primary means of its own re-analysis is a fascinating observation that occurred to me yesterday too. I've been a Wiki (and a Ward Cunningham) fan for years, but I would say that Wiki, too, is suboptimal for the task at hand. Ideally XML, not raw ASCII text, would be the stuff that was written, and refactored, and then mined to produce coherent views. We have no tools that come close to enabling that to happen.

Such tools, combining the power of XML with the flexibility of freeform text, and operating on a universal canvas, are what will really drive mainstream adoption of a two-way Web. In my OSCOM keynote, when I revealed the depressing truth about how I wrote my slideshow, I noted that for most of the people in the audience, writing XML in emacs seemed completely normal. But while it seems so to me, and probably seems so to most involved in the Echo project, it most decidedly is not.

One of the reasons I can speak effectively in this discussion is that I've mastered skills -- for quickly gathering and reshaping raw material, and composing original material -- that most people will never, and should never, be expected to master. Empowering non-techies was the torch that Dave Winer lit with Radio UserLand. One particular BigCo, Microsoft, well understands what it takes to carry it forward, and to empower most people to achieve 80% of the fluency with 20% of the effort. After years of foot-dragging, because of a historical format lock-in that will soon be irrelevant and will be abandoned, Microsoft is on the verge of delivering the kinds of applications (1, 2) that can be decisive. I have applauded their efforts. I wish I saw credible competition on the horizon, because the health of the ecosystem requires it. The opportunity is NOT primarily tied to syndication formats, or to weblog APIs. I think Microsoft gets that, and I wish more people did.

Gordon Weakliem:

Dare also mentions politics as being a driver behind Echo. Evidently, this is what the controversy's about. I think that it's a terrible thing to even tacitly admit this sentiment into your mission. I've never yet found software that can fix interpersonal relationships. When all's said and done and Echo is a reality, the same people will still be around, disliking each other. [Gordon Weakliem's Weblog]

You're right, Gordon. I'd add: and Microsoft will still be busily creating the applications that make these politically-charged formats and APIs relevant to the masses.

Sam Ruby:


Sam, we are in violent agreement as to the value of well-formed and XPATH-searchable content, something I have recently sought to demonstrate (1, 2).

I think -- no, I am sure -- that you radically underestimate the distance between possession of a tool (IE or Mozilla) that can validate well-formedness, and ability to produce well-formed content in routine written communication. In terms of such ability, I'm undoubtedly in the 99.9% percentile, and it's still something that slows me down and makes me think and sometimes trips me up. That makes it, by definition, a non-starter for most people. You called my OSCOM keynote best in show. The message wasn't that we need more or different formats or APIs. I'm not saying formats or APIs don't matter, obviously they do, and obviously they must and will evolve. But my message was, and is, that weblog technology has to empower more people to communicate more easily and more effectively. Many more people, and much more easily and effectively, than now. I illustrated with some simple best practices that seemed to resonate powerfully with a lot of people. And I showed how, even in the midst of elaborating some of those best practices, my own geek blinders prevented me from seeing a simple and obvious thing. Those of us with techie DNA have got to try to understand, especially at this critical juncture, how it influences our perceptions and behavior.

Tim Bray:

Jeepers, how many more levels deeper are going on this one till we get to the bottom? [ongoing]

Tim, in my view, you won't hit paydirt until the non-emacs-using civilians -- the people who are expected to create and gather and process this content whose representation we all (myself included) find so fascinating -- are put front and center. You write:

Having a wonderfully readable language is not a win if it's such a pain in the ass to write code for that nobody does...So the real situation is this: the interests of those who for one reason or another hand-author and hand-read syndication feeds are directly in conflict with those of the people who write the software that reads them.

Being one of those very few inclined to hand-author XHTML, I should be flattered to see that my interests figure so prominently in the Echo process. In fact it worries me, as the continuing non-adoption of XML by civilians has always worried me. The elephant in the room here is this thing called the semantic web. We are all like the proverbial blind men trying to feel the shape of that elephant. There is one aspect of the beast I see clearly: we're not going to have a semantic web until regular people can effectively write it. Weblogs were a major step forward, hence all this excitement and energy. Why the urge now to tweak the formats and APIs? Politics aside, because it's what we do, it's what we know, it's how we think. Some tweaking may be necessary, and establishing a framework within which to tweak is even more necessary. But none of that adds up to the next major step forward.

Dave Winer:

How about let's try to put this back together so that RSS stays what it is, a simple syndication format, with a set of best practices that all parties adhere to, so that the format isn't vulnerable to takeover by one or more BigCo's. [Scripting News]

Dave, I'm obviously 100% in favor of defining best practices, preserving simplicity, and ensuring continuity. One way or another, it looks as though weblog formats and APIs are heading onto the standards track -- something that I think everyone involved regards as necessary yet problematic. I'd vastly prefer to see this happen with little disruption to the existing RSS ecosystem. But if it winds up being a lot, I wouldn't characterize that mainly as a "format takeover." I'm tempted to call it a "techie takeover" instead. Casting this as BigCo's vs. SmallCo's is too easy. What you have always contributed -- in the form of ideas and of implementations -- is a profound user sensibility. We have never needed that more than now.

I've written recently about finishing work. Jean Paoli has dreamed for half his life of bringing XML to the masses, and he well knows that Microsoft's ability to pour resources into usability analysis and finishing work is his best shot at making the dream real. Perhaps naively, I don't think it's our only shot. Big or small, open source or commercial, I believe anybody who focuses on what really matters can create forward motion -- thanks in no small measure to the breakthroughs you have pioneered. Formats and APIs are not what really matter here. Figuring out what people can use, in ways that make sense to them, is what matters. That's what you've always done, what I have always supported and loudly acclaimed, and what no-one else is doing in a big-picture way. I know you'll keep pointing the way forward.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2003/06/29.html#a734