Feed The World's Press With RSS!

by George Hopkin

Microsoft stands accused of usurping an emerging web application, and information professionals are advised to sit up and take notice. Not so much of the non-story itself, but the underlying trends which spell fundamental change to their industry. 

To put things in perspective, here’s a tech flashback: At the height of the dot-com bubble, when billions of venture capital dollars were being blown on one 15-minute cyberfad after the next - and Netscape and Microsoft were at each other’s throats in the vicious Browser Wars - the industry media caught wind of a new buzzword: ‘Push’. 

Push technology was going to redefine the web. Why should we spend hours just surfing (I mean, how much fun does that sound?) when we could spell out our requirements and allow content providers to ‘push’ what we were looking for to our desktop? 

For a while there, push looked like the answer to all our web needs and in 1997, push player PointCast appeared to be actually worth the $450 million bid made by News Corp. Two years later, PointCast went for just $7 million after running into the kind of revenue problems that would burst the global dot-com bubble. 

Push became synonymous with dot-com failure. Wanted to sound a bum note at a Silicon Valley party in 2001? Just slip “Boo.com”, “Irrational exuberance” or “push” into the conversation. Then sit back and watch them choke on their frappuccinos. 

While push may be dead and buried, it lives on - in spirit, at least - in a technology that has been quietly taking the web by stealth. Where push tried the direct approach and failed, the new contender – RSS – has crept in through the backdoor. 

Here’s the tech stuff in a nutshell: RSS (which stands for Rich Site Summary, RDF Site Summary, or Really Simple Syndication; take your pick) has emerged as the dominant delivery method for news websites and weblogs. 

RSS is, in turn, a file format of XML (no choice with this one, it’s Extensible Markup Language), and, frankly, even information professionals can end the tricky part of their RSS education here. 

What matters now is this: RSS is everywhere. And it’s not just the 800lb gorilla sites like Google News (http://news.google.com) and Yahoo! News (http://news.yahoo.com/) making use of RSS - want to keep track of the 25 hottest urban legends? Snopes.com’s feed is here: http://www.snopes.com/info/top25uls.rss. Or why not subscribe to The Mead Feed (http://www.gotmead.com/atom.xml) and receive “random maunderings [sic] on the mead-making industry”. 

For public relations professional, gaining comprehensive knowledge of RSS and how to use it is an absolute no brainer – major news aggregators are waiting for press releases right now, as long as they are provided in RSS format. And RSS feeds of search engine results can automate daily press clipping chores. 

Even the lowliest news and information sites are offering full RSS compliance. Which is why many developers and other early adopters were outraged by Microsoft’s perceived high-jacking of RSS last month. 

Word hit the street that Big Bill was planning to refer to RSS feeds as “web feeds” in a future version of Internet Explorer. Foul, cried the geeks. Microsoft was simply renaming an existing technology and shouldn’t be allowed to pass this technology off as its own innovation. 

But the furor was short lived when the same geeks realized the vast majority of computer users didn’t have a clue what RSS was in the first place, never mind how to put it to good use. And when it was also pointed out that Google and the open-source web browser Firefox also gave RSS feeds more user-friendly names, the Microsoft bashing died down to the usual background noise. 

In fact, most commentators skimmed over the key element of the Microsoft scare: the Internet Explorer integration. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, just as long as the main players see enough potential in it to maintain and expand their support for it. 

Like it or not, Microsoft still holds the lion’s share of the browser market and if RSS is to continue its conquest of the web, then a little help from Bill could be just the ticket.

About the Author: George Hopkin is CEO of Pressventures, parent company of free press release distribution service ClickPress (http://www.clickpress.com)



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