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Yet Another Subscription Model at Microsoft

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At Seattle’s Gnomedex technology conference (http://www.gnomedex.com/), a cutting-edge exploration of emerging Internet technologies like RSS…

…Blogging and Podcasting, Microsoft demonstrated IE7 publicly for the first time and announced (http://msdn.microsoft.com/longhorn/understanding/rss/rsslonghorn/) that the company was in love with RSS. Not in so many words, of course, but Microsoft is embracing and extending the open syndication technology in a way not seen previously.

For starters, IE7 will have nice RSS integration built right in to the browser. RSS feed autodiscovery will light up a button on the toolbar inviting users to subscribe to a site’s content. This is a nice touch, following the lead of Opera and Apple’s Safari in making it less of a chore to track down and subscribe to RSS feeds.

Next, the forthcoming and long-awaited followup to Windows XP, code-named Longhorn, will feature RSS-related “platform services”, integrating RSS functionality right at the OS level. What this means, concretely, is that those who create applications that make use of RSS can count on a certain level of OS-level functionality including automatic downloading and parsing of feeds. The jury is still out on what this could mean; and although there is the predictable speculation on how Microsoft will use this to put its competitors at a disadvantage, the company seems to have provided a means for application writers to make use of non-Microsoft-approved RSS elements while still gaining some the benefits of OS-level parsing and idle-time feed downloading.

Finally, Microsoft has created what it calls Simple List Extensions to the RSS model, allowing content to be provided in the form of an ordered list, such as a constantly-updating top-ten lists, calendar entries and so on. In a refreshing move, the company will be making these extensions freely available using a Creative Commons license (http://creativecommons.org/), a way of making content freely available while retaining certain rights to that content.

What Is RSS?

In the event that you live in a cave and still don’t know about RSS, it is a sub-standard of XML that allows content providers to easily syndicate their content in a predictable way, enabling programmers to create programs (commonly called “aggregators”) that pull in wide-ranging content one item at a time and present it in a logical manner. Think of it as a subscription model for capsule summaries of all the web content you don’t have time to read, similar to AP headlines rolling in on a teletype. It allows you to collect web content from a variety of sources into one place where you can pick and choose what you’d like to actually visit.

Building on the concept, the Podcasting phenomenon feeds audio broadcasts in a similar manner using the same underlying technology. It is this kind of versatility that makes RSS such a prime candidate for being the most significant disruptive technology since the arrival of HTML, meaning that it will acquire new uses not intended or foreseen in its original implementation. Blogs make heavy use of RSS feeds to present bits of news from other sites automatically, and so on.

In fact, Microsoft seems to be betting that RSS will once again shift the primary model by which people make use of the Web. Originally, linking was key, and people moved from site to site through a comparatively simple web of interconnections until there were simply too many pages to keep track of. Then came the search engines to help you find what you were looking for on the Web, and now Google has become a common verb. Searching is the primary way people find Web content now; but Microsoft sees this changing again as RSS makes it possible for people to subscribe to content they know they like or find useful.

I’ll never forget my first experience with the World Wide Web, and I don’t recall being all that excited about the text-based subject tree with some interesting entries but no content. That was fifteen years ago, however, and the Web has changed pretty dramatically since then. There is still a good deal of magic in the basic hyperlink, though the sheer amount of garbage on the Web has made the kind of discovery we used to enjoy nearly impossible. In fact, in spite of technological advances in the search engines, results are still hit-and-miss at best, and downright useless at worst.

Two Ways Forward From Here

RSS has been touted (http://www.sitepronews.com/archives/2004/dec/20.html) as a sort of “back-door” into the coveted highly-placed search results of Yahoo and perhaps into Google, thanks to the automated technology of “pinging” systems which spread the word about your RSS feed’s new content, the return-links they generate and the fact that most sites with RSS feeds are content-driven to begin with. We can say that since we established our RSS feed at CafeID (http://www.cafeid.com), our traffic from searches has picked up dramatically, and we’re nothing but pleased with the result of a couple of hours’ effort.

Google, however, is exploring a different technology it invented called SiteMaps (https://www.google.com/webmasters/sitemaps/login), which are similar to RSS feeds except that they feed your content to Google, rather than to the world of RSS aggregators, thereby (it is hoped) improving the accuracy of its search results. We’ll explore SiteMaps a little further next week, after we get our own SiteMap up and running.

Microsoft’s embrace of the RSS model is hard to dismiss, especially given the enthusiasm and openness that the company seems to be bringing to the project. A public beta release of IE7 is due out sometime this summer, showcasing this technology, and when Longhorn arrives next year sometime, the idea that our content will be flowed automatically through the OS and a wide range of associated applications is very appealing.

Okay! I’m Convinced Already! What Do I Do?

Creating an RSS feed couldn’t be much easier. You simply create a simple XML file describing the content you wish to syndicate and place it somewhere on your site. The file, a simple text file, uses straightforward self-explanatory tags like <title> and <link> to describe each <item> you want to syndicate (this article would be a new <item> , for example) and then set about keeping your sites up to date.

You don’t need to run a blog or anything like that to have an RSS feed. Just find a good tutorial like this one at SearchEngineWatch (http://searchenginewatch.com/sereport/article.php/2175271) and make your file, then validate it and expose it to the monitoring (or “ping” sites) that keep track of and pass the word about your content feed.

It’s ridiculously easy to add an RSS feed to your website, whether yours is a content-driven site or not; and with the syndication format about to take off, it makes perfect sense to investigate embracing it yourself for your company’s website if you haven’t already.

A vote of confidence from Redmond goes a long way toward establishing technology like this. Subscription models seem to be very popular at Microsoft these days, and it will be interesting to watch how Gates & Co. handle the integration of RSS technology into its product line. Watch this space, or better yet, subscribe to it for continued coverage of emerging Internet technologies and how to put them to work for you.

Trevor Bauknight is a web designer and writer with over 15 years of
experience on the Internet. He specializes in the creation and
maintenance of business and personal identity online and can be
reached at trevor@tryid.com. Stop by http://www.cafeid.com for a free
tryout of the revolutionary SiteBuildingSystem and check out our
Flash-based website and IMAP e-mail hosting solutions, complete with
live support.

Yet Another Subscription Model at Microsoft
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About Trevor Bauknight
Trevor Bauknight is a web designer and writer with over 15 years of experience on the Internet. He specializes in the creation and maintenance of business and personal identity online and can be reached at trevor@tryid.com. Stop by http://www.cafeid.com for a free tryout of the revolutionary SiteBuildingSystem and check out our Flash-based website and IMAP e-mail hosting solutions, complete with live support. WebProNews Writer


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