Dont Believe RSS Hype

 
 
By Jim Rapoza  |  Posted 2004-09-20
 
 
 

As the National Football League season was set to get under way, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots were basking in overwhelmingly favorable coverage, with many pundits and experts claiming that this years team is even better than last years and predicting that the Pats will repeat as league champion.

Patriots Coach Bill Belichick clearly understands that this kind of media enthusiasm can be as dangerous to his teams chances of winning as any opposing quarterback. So to combat player overconfidence, Belichick posted signs throughout the teams practice and training facilities that said, "Dont believe the hype." (I didnt know Belichick was a Public Enemy fan.)

The danger of hype is an area where sports and technology intersect. Hype can be as dangerous to promising technologies and products as it can be to a pro football team. And when I think of a technology whose developers could stand to make note of Coach Belichicks signs, I think of RSS.

Thats because few technologies in recent years have received the same kind of broad media hype that has been lavished on RSS. Much of the hype has been deserved, as RSS clearly eases the distribution and consumption of information and news. But when breathless observers predict how RSS will change all software—not to mention the way we work and live—they are doing RSS more harm than good.

Over-the-top hype can be especially dangerous to fledgling technologies, whose very immaturity pretty much guarantees that unforeseen problems will crop up. As I mentioned in my July 5 column, RSS is in many ways a descendant of push, which was itself a victim of over-the-top hype. And while RSS doesnt have the same problems as push, it does have problems of its own.

One of the main benefits of RSS is its simplicity. In minutes, I can write an RSS file to syndicate a column or blog, and there are tools that make this process even easier. But the simplicity of RSS also means that it doesnt have a whole lot of intelligence over its delivery.

Many large sites that deliver RSS feeds recently started complaining that they are being hit every hour with a flood of reader requests that is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing as a denial-of-service attack. This happens because most RSS readers are pretty dumb about when they check for updates, and theres little the server can do to control this.

Another problem facing RSS is that it isnt really a standard. There are several competing versions of RSS on the Internet, which leads to incompatibility and even confusion as to what RSS stands for. One definition is Resource Description Framework Site Summary, but RSS is also known to stand for Really Simple Syndication and Really Stupid Syndication. (OK, I saw that last one on a discussion board.)

And while most users and commercial vendors of RSS would love to see it combined into one standard under the stewardship of a group such as the World Wide Web Consortium or OASIS, theres been little evidence that this will happen—with most groups defending their version of RSS with the same zeal as linemen protecting the quarterback.

In my opinion, RSS is at a crossroads in development. As our Labs package points out, more and more companies are interested in using RSS in enterprise environments, and more and more software companies are adding RSS to support this interest.

But this is also that time when many of the problems and deficiencies in RSS will be discovered, and enterprise users of RSS will expect these problems to be fixed as soon as possible. If the developers and caretakers of RSS are unable or unwilling to do this, many companies may decide to take a pass on the technology.

So, to those developing products that use RSS: Find ways now to address some of RSS shortcomings—and dig for problems heretofore unknown—so the technology doesnt become a burden on those who decide to use it. To the RSS community: Find a way to work together to create one standard, which will be much more robust and responsive than multiple competing standards.

And to everyone with an interest in RSS: Dont believe the hype.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

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