Microsoft has decided that subscribing, via RSS, will become the third leg of its information-access triangle. The other two legs are browsing and searching. With the addition of RSS, once a user has found information they are interested in, they will be able to stay updated easily as the information changes.
RSS will be baked into Longhorn and Internet Explorer 7 and will show up over the next four months in betas of both, and as a developer specification. Since IE 7 also will be a Windows XP product, current Microsoft users will get some RSS functionality. But the real value wont be seen until RSS-enabled applications start to appear in Longhorn.
To understand the significance of Microsofts announcement, its helpful to forget what you think you know about RSS. What weve seen with blogs and Podcasts doesnt really hint at what a subscription technology can do when implemented in the operating system itself.
In that context, think of RSS as a means for the OS to look at XML data, process it and present the information to an application for presentation to the user. For example, a Longhorn user might use Outlook to subscribe to a public calendar, select specific events they are interested in and then get updates as the specifics change. Users might subscribe to other sorts of lists as well, or to search results, documents or whatever else developers decide to support.
On that front, Microsoft is mum. Fridays announcement was about IE 7 and Longhorn only. How Microsoft will support RSS in its own applications was not discussed. Longhorn apps developers will have the specification this fall, although Microsoft also hasnt discussed implementing RSS in its dev tools. Will the next Microsoft Office be RSS-enabled? We can only hope so. Will I be able to use simple Web tools to create RSS content? Id imagine, but I dont know that, either. Only time, industry support and user interest will tell.
In working with RSS, Microsoft found that "really simple" was also too simple. Redmonds key contribution to RSS, besides offering OS-level support, is the creation of a set of "Simple List Extensions" necessary if RSS is to expand beyond its current reach.
Microsofts Gary Schare told me that basic RSS is good at handling information that shows up one piece at a time and in sequence. Thats not surprising considering its roots in the blog community. Microsofts extensions, which may become the most common use of RSS, allow lists of data to be subscribed to and manipulated, as in the calendar example above.
While this announcement doesnt compare to the day a decade ago when Bill Gates stood up and committed Microsoft to making the Internet both accessible and useful, this is still a very good day.
Ive never felt that RSS did anything particularly interesting. It was just too limited. But with the Microsoft list extensions and presumably the weight of Redmond behind it, RSS could make subscribing to very specific information a common experience for users in about three years or so.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done, but the subscription model seems so much a part of Microsofts "new world of work" that Im sure we will see some interesting things.
In the process, I hope the RSS name will go away and become something even simpler, like a "subscribe" feature in RSS-enabled apps and on RSS-formatted data. Users shouldnt have to remember what the letters stand for or what syndication means, they just need better access to information, and RSS as Microsoft envisions it is a huge step forward.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.