RSS Subscription Central?

Blog reading could stand to be a little less complicated, according to the man who helped create the technology behind it.

More and more tech-savvy Internet users prefer to get their content pushed to them via RSS feeds. But some people reading blogs on the Web may not know what those rectangular buttons saying “XML,” “RSS” or “My Yahoo” mean. RSS is an XML format for syndication information that allows for automatic updates.

Dave Winer, who co-authored the original RSS standard with Netscape and then went on to author RSS 2.0 alone, is proposing a method to combat what he calls “the Yahoo Problem.”

“All those logos, when will it end?” Winer complained on Tuesday in his blog, Scripting News.

Winer quoted stats from RSS aggregator Feedburner showing 20 different readers used to access its feeds. Bloglines, the most-used reader, commands just 32.86 of the market, while the number two reader, NetNewsWire, is used by just 16.95 percent. If a blog needed a “subscribe” button for each of these readers while publishers follow Yahoo and offer their own branded aggregators, pages could get very messy, the blog read. Winer was traveling and did not respond to e-mail.

Winer’s proposal has two parts: technology initiative and industry alliance.

The technology, he says, already is in use on his own Under Winer’s scenario, the “subscribe” icon would be linked to a central server that engages in a confirmation dialog, then adds a link to the user’s outline processor markup language (OPML) file. OPML is an XML-based format that enables the exchange of information structured as an outline between various applications and operating systems. It’s used in RSS to list the feeds one subscribes to, enabling users to export and share their subscription lists.

Winer advocates open-sourcing the software to allow others to develop competitive services. “This guarantees that the result of the contributions in number one are shared widely, that there is no proprietary technology involved, and should the system we set up falter, it would be easy to set up another,” he wrote.

But Scott Rafer, CEO of Feedster, a search service for blogs and feeds, doesn’t like the idea. “The issue with Dave’s proposal, both commercially and technically, is centralization,” he said.

Instead of a centralized service, he likes the idea of a cookie standard for aggregators. Each publisher could run a piece of code on its server that looked for a cookie in the user’s browser that told the server which reader was in use. After the cookie was first placed on the client machine, every other feed publisher could use it to show the appropriate subscription icon.

In fact, Mike Rowehl, a Feedster engineer, posted sample code for such a cookie on his personal blog, bitsplitter.

“It’s a generic, pick up the graphic attached to my aggregator and my aggregator only,” Rafer said. “From thereon, if you don’t have an aggregator, [the publisher] can sell that little spot… If somebody decides they really want to push My Yahoo, that’s their decision.”

And speaking of Yahoo, Jeremy Zawodny, the media company’s blogging evangelist, responded to’s query via his own blog, writing, “Dave’s proposed solution sounds a bit complicated. In my mind, this has always been solely a client/side problem. The fact is that you click on an orange XML button and the browser does the wrong thing.”

“The obvious solution is to fix the browser(s) or provide a helper app that can do the job if there’s no obvious way to extend the browser,” Zawodny wrote. In fact, he said he’s suggested a few times that Yahoo incorporate such an app into the Yahoo Toolbar.

Jason Calacanis, publisher of Weblogs, Inc., a network of ad-supported blogs, prefers the individual subscribe links on his sites, for My Yahoo, Feedster and NewsGator. They represent one-to-one relationships with those aggregators — and agreements that they won’t show ads on any more of his content than the headlines and abstracts. He said the buttons were not paid placements, but rather cross-promotion.

“Yahoo promotes us, gets a little bit of content and they don’t interfere with our ability to make money,” Calacanis said.

Neither was Calacanis concerned with button proliferation. “We’ll put more buttons up there, it’s not a problem. Not 20, but as many as six,” he added.

If the goal of Winer’s proposal is to get more people to subscribe — that is, introducing the world of RSS to mainstream users — hiding the tech behind a simple “subscribe” message is a great idea, said Jupiter Research analyst Gary Stein.

“It should be a lot easier to subscribe to a feed than it currently is, and I’m sure that the majority of the online population ignores the buttons they see on blogs and other feeds,” he said.

When it comes to the industry initiative side of Winer’s proposal, trying to get the nascent RSS community on board with the proposal would be like boiling the ocean, said Paul Kedrosky, a fellow at the William J. von Liebig Center at University of California San Diego.

“Autonomous feed auto-discovery, the sort of thing we already see inside of aggregators, and inside of Firefox… puts all the intelligence where it belongs, under the hood,” Kedrosky said.

The proposal does go against the individualistic blog culture. “What an individual puts on their blog page should be up to them,” Calacanis said. “[Dave’s] ideas tend to discount business issues. And maybe mine tend to discount technology simplicity sometimes. For us, we like the idea that we get to pick and partner with RSS readers.”

Besides, it might be too early in the game. “The RSS [industry] is fragmented, and that is still a good thing,” Kedrosky said. “Diversity breeds experimentation, and, at this early stage in syndication’s life, the more experimentation the better.”

Jupiter Research analyst Eric Peterson agreed. “I’m in favor of simplifying the subscription process, but I don’t think trying to organize the blogosphere is the way to do it,” he said. “I think that RSS is still nascent, … (although I expect the ‘Father of RSS’ to disagree). Despite the high number of people reading blogs, the market still needs competitive differentiation to drive innovation.” Jupiter Research and are both owned by Jupitermedia.

“Dave knows a lot about getting technology people to work together,” Stein said. He suggested Winer could tie his efforts to Feedmesh, an initiative that aims to tie all feeds together into a single data source that all aggregators could use.

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