Internet – RSS – sweet spot!

Another big trend in information will be the continued emergence and improvement in RSS technology

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RSS – Really Something Special?
By Kevin Laws on February 8, 2005 08:03 AM | Permalink | Links In | Print | Comments (5) | TrackBack (15) | Categories: Internet Infrastructure
Is RSS for real, or is it today’s Social Networking?

It is hard to travel Silicon Valley these days without hearing the term RSS. People who don’t even know what the term means want to invest in it, create companies around it, or add it to their products. (VentureBlog’s David Hornik correctly predicted the rise of RSS over a year ago). AskJeeves just purchased Bloglines this week, spurring more interest in the space.

The core concept isn’t new. Push technology was the hot trend of the mid 90’s, spawning PointCast, Marimba and a host of others. What’s changed is the wide adoption of RSS as a standard, enabling an explosion of new products and services.

Really Short History

At its core, RSS is just Really Simple Syndication – literally. That’s what those three letters stand for. It is a way of organizing content so that it can be understood by a machine; kind of HTML for computers (in fact, RSS is a form of XML).

It was used long ago to serve up changing content to the portal at Netscape (for example, new AP news stories). Bloggers have since adapted it to serve up articles they write so they can reach their audience more easily. If I make this article machine readable, then you don’t need to check VentureBlog every day to see if we’ve written anything new. Since we use RSS (via FeedBurner), your computer will do that for you. It can distinguish one article from another even if they’re on the same page, and tell if a new one appears. Your computer can deliver it as a message to your email inbox, or create a page of all the interesting articles on the web that day. This has since extended to news sites (like MSNBC and CNN). Now other creative services on the web like Netflix are creatively using RSS to deliver new release information and recommendations.

Those are simple examples. Making the content machine-readable allows a host of new services and tools to aid you in navigating changing content on the web. Many are already in development.

RSS Landscape Today

RSS is developing in the same order as the World Wide Web: content, browsers, plumbing, media, and finally business.

On the web, a few scientific and academic sites had web pages, which led enterprising coders created browsers. The most popular of these, Mosaic, was eventually duplicated by the same team to form the basis of Netscape. Ultimately, Microsoft built it in to their products as Internet Explorer. Next, tools addressed the plumbing needed to manage all of the content: search, creation, management, security, personalization, serving, etc. Altavista, Excite, Yahoo, and a host of others were born. The media sites came along shortly thereafter (portals, mostly), and finally business came to the web.

While the evolution of the web was not as neatly organized as I’ve implied, that was the general development track of web businesses. RSS is going through the same phases, though much more quickly since people have the web model as a reference. The space is breaking down into similar stages:

Browsers (readers): As RSS spread widely, thoughtful engineers designed a series of useful readers. These allow you to specify the content you want, and the reader will find and deliver it to you. There are now many readers, including You Subscribe, NewsGator, and IntraVNews (for Outlook), SharpReader (Windows client), NetNewsWire (Mac), Bloglines and My Yahoo (Web), as well as many others.
Plumbing: We are just starting to get tools to deal with the profusion of RSS content. These include?
RSS Search engines: Technorati, Feedster, and others.
Portals for RSS content: Technorati, FeedDemon, Bloglines, Syndic8,, Blogdex, etc.
Content Managers & Servers: Six Apart, Blogger, Feedburner, others.
There are still interesting services to create in this area, including personalization, security, and other tools surrounding RSS. Plumbing is the area getting the most VC attention these days. When a VC says they’re looking into RSS, they generally mean infrastructure.
Media: This has grown up with the readers. Some of the existing players are now supporting RSS feeds, and the blogging phenomena has thrown up some new stars (Boing Boing, Instapundit, Endgadget, etc.).
Business: RSS is still in the plumbing phase, so business and commerce concepts, such as advertising inserted in RSS feeds or charging for subscriptions are just now starting to appear. Some companies are also starting to poke around consumer commerce – Dulance, for example, is providing RSS feeds of price search results, so you know when prices change on items you’ve been eyeing. Others are exploring syndication of business data, or using RSS as a business communications standard.
The Future Of RSS?
Unlike the original push towards push technology, the open RSS standard is already widely adopted. As with the web, this may allow a variety of interesting capabilities which extend RSS capabilities in different directions.

One direction relates to automating tasks for you. This is basically the return of agent technology. Now that a wider variety of web sites are available in machine readable format, it should be possible to tell your computer things like “tell me when an article about gnosticism appears”. While this is similar to the stored searches on Google, the fact that RSS aggregators are closer to real-time makes this more valuable. The best analogy is “Tivo for the Web” – specify web sites to definitely “record” and the agent can also record a selection of potentially interesting web posts.

Another direction is enterprise use for RSS. Imagine replacing Microsoft Exchange with an interlocking array of RSS feeds. Each user with Outlook receives their shared calendar, contacts, and other information from subscriptions to RSS feeds. Or they become contributors, sharing one of their calendars with others. I’m sure reading that sentence inspires a host of potential objections for why RSS can not do that. Yet.

Overcoming those objections with new solutions will inspire a new wave of RSS companies, along with some of the current players. Existing enterprise solutions will then be able to adopt RSS as a communications mechanism that isn’t limited by sharing a Microsoft Exchange server, allowing standardized information sharing. This direction more or less completes the promise of interoperability that began with XML.

As both examples imply, however, RSS is more evolution than revolution. It is not a brand new Internet; rather, it is an improvement on the existing one that has finally pushed machine-to-machine content communication over the tipping point. That certainly allows some interesting and very large opportunities, particularly in search and collaborative filtering (see the Attention.XML project). However, after several companies become successful laying down the plumbing and infrastructure to support it, for the most part it will become a tool integrated into existing platforms (much like XML).

Most of the future winners already exist, with only a few more to come in the infrastructure and business areas. While the space is evolving rapidly, I will be shocked if more than a handful of companies become large enough to be standalone ventures. More likely, current players will be acquired very soon if RSS does become mainstream for other applications.

In the meantime, we’re finally getting a set of new content and services on the Internet. Enjoy.