by July 16, 2006 0 comments

RSS v2.0 that people around the globe use today is an evolution apart from
the 0.90 version that hit the Web from Netscape who owned the standard then.
Today, this XML data communication standard can use modules for extensibility
and is a very stable development platform. We are also starting to see a lot of
applications coming up around this ability to exchange information quickly and
through all kinds of bandwidth and firewalls.

From operating systems (Vista/Longhorn) to widgets that run on your desktop
to present a variety of information from the latest weather and stock positions
to news, calendar schedules and views of your e-mail. RSS is everywhere now.
But, being omnipresent is one thing…is it omniscient yet? Before we answer
that question, let’s understand a fundamental aspect of RSS.

Is RSS the right standard yet for disconnected apps that exchange data?
RSS applications

Don’t blame RSS
Why not? Because it’s just a standard. A file format. A protocol. How
application developers leverage the standard to present information or include
ways to interact with or modify that data for use is entirely distinct. One
should not fault the RSS standard for the faults of the applications of RSS.
That said, however, so far the implementations that use RSS have been primarily
one-way streets. Application A generates a read-only stream of data formatted as
per the RSS specification. Application B grabs the feed and presents it to the
user after formatting it (using a default CSS or one that’s referenced in the

Since the purpose of RSS itself is in its multi-purpose nature, there is no
way that the feed itself can be customized for a particular need. This then,
brings up two interesting contra-effects. One, if I publish an RSS stream of
downloads available on my website and tell a calendaring application that this
stream is in fact a schedule of my appointments, there is no way that the
calendar application can verify this. And, I can do pretty much as I like with
the RSS feed itself, from creating a client application to using it to perform
automatic patch management to having partner websites display that information
to their visitors.

Most people subscribe to an RSS feed because it has been talked about positively elsewhere. Others use it because of the all-in-one place convenience it offers 

Today, there are two primary uses for RSS around the Web: one, blog feeds and
two, news and what’s new feeds. But are blogs and news the only topics that
interest the average user? Moreover, there are so many blog sites and so many
sites that make use of these feeds to represent the same information and publish
RSS feeds of this so-called ‘cleaned-up content’ that the average user
suffers from information overload. If one assumes that blogs are the future of
RSS, then there is not much left to happen in RSS.

Application shortcomings
Take the example of calendaring given above a little forward. We carried an
article last month (Multiple
Calendars Online and Shared
) where we showed how you could use Google
Calendar from everywhere-but with one limitation.

All you can do with that is you can see the RSS calendar feed in your client
application. You cannot make modifications, even if its your own calendar (from
the client application). You cannot even integrate the information from the RSS-feed
into your regular calendar so that you have all the information in one place.
All the client applications that exist so far and make use of RSS feeds, have
similar disadvantages.

But, applications to make content really useful to the enterprise user
(whether internal or external) are still lacking. The problem there may also be
in what different enterprises choose to expose as an RSS feed: news may be fine,
but business scorecards anyone? Are our enterprises scared of using RSS to
present information in a consolidated format? Okay, maybe the fear centers
around the fact that there is no foolproof way to demand authorization from an
RSS reader before viewing a feed, and we hope to see more RSS implementations
once this is taken care of.

Although news and blogs are high on the utilization indices, rich media content like podcasting and applications relating to online commerce are significant

Focused or reduced traffic!
RSS comes out as this really great way to pre-present information to a potential
visitor and draw in only the ones that are really interested in the information.
While this on one hand reduces the visitor traffic (that is those who logon to
your server or resource), it also increases the traffic on the same server
because of the increased number of people who will be looking at the information
before they even come to your main application. Didn’t follow that one?
Consider this: instead of the thousand people who somehow got to your front page
and the 500 that decided to stay on through, now you will have a million odd
unknown faces subscribed to your feed that was listed on a dozen odd sources all
over the web. Only a tiny percent of this million would come over to your
website and that too to access or use highly specific content that appealed to
them in the feed they read.

Although the information is pure XML text that can be easily compressed, the
number of packets now generated is significantly larger than your pre-RSS
existence. The solution then is to package the information better, optimally
categorize your feeds and impose conditional GETs at your HTTP server.Some feed
generators also impose a limit on the number of requests for the feed (a refresh
at the client side) you can generate in a given time.

Future of RSS
The be-all and end-all of the standard is not limited to blogs and news. So far,
it has been the tool of the couch-potato surfer who gets all his news and e-mail
delivered into one in-box while he sips Pepsi and munches a packet of chips. All
this is set to change. New ventures coming up in the US seek to make use of the
functionality of RSS to provide new ways to manage content and deliver it to the
consumer. They are also designing new profitable ways to operate, including the
insertion of context and content sensitive advertising into such feeds.

The ability to link to and push any kind of content or media (including
presentations, audio and video) through RSS is an interesting and powerful way
to link up to and communicate with your customers and partners. As a standard,
RSS is here to stay, although its one killer application on the enterprise front
is yet to show up.

Sujay V Sarma

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