Memo to Steve Ballmer

By Steve Gillmor  |  Posted 2004-03-25

Memo to Steve Ballmer

Dear Steve,

I know this comes at a busy time, with you most likely distracted by the European situation. But I know that youre always open to feedback from the community and most of the press, and your popular Longhorn evangelist Robert Scoble has assured us that Microsoft execs are listening. So here goes.

Steve, you need to support RSS. Where do I want to go today? To my RSS reader. Why? Because Im spending more and more of my screen time in the RSS space. Its far more time-efficient than browsing the Web. Together with instant messaging, its become an effective and reliable workaround for e-mail outages.

When Dave Winer developed SOAP with Don Box and Microsoft engineers, you and Bill signed on and jumpstarted the Web services revolution. In fact, I first met Dave when you invited him to the Forum 2000 .Net rollout in recognition of his pioneering efforts. Now both Dave and his counterparts in the Atom community have agreed to seek a unification of the syndication standards via an IETF working group.

Certainly RSS has been popularized as an efficient way to aggregate blog postings. But RSS adoption in the media and e-commerce spaces is accelerating even faster. Server-based aggregation sites such as Bloglines and MyYahoo are evangelizing the technology. Newsletters and direct marketing campaigns are shifting out of e-mail to take advantage of RSS efficiencies and positive word-of-mouth characteristics.

And then theres the intersection of peer-to-peer and RSS enclosures, where companies such as Disney are taking advantage of TiVo-like time shifting of rich media payloads. Groove 3.0s new Windows file sharing technology and the BitTorrent distribution specification are just two of the powerful tools now capable of enhancing the scalability and economic viability of RSS feeds.

But lack of Microsoft support at the highest levels is retarding the RSS momentum. Neither you nor Bill has mentioned the technology in any public setting. Yet your engineers and developers continue to produce a raft of RSS aggregators, servers and Outlook add-ins in their spare time. A product manager even demoed a phone-based photo-blog application during Bills keynote at VSLive this week.

Next page: Why Microsoft Needs RSS

Why Microsoft Needs RSS

Perhaps its just as a friend of mine suggested: RSS is not a high-priority item in the queue, dwarfed by the challenges of security, open source, digital rights management and the Longhorn evolution. These issues are rightly top-of-mind, but that doesnt mean RSS shouldnt be up there too.

First, RSS offers a powerful evangelism tool for your security efforts. For example, distributing Windows update information via RSS would let you annotate hot fixes and updates with timely information and tutorials about the reasons why the update should be accepted. Delivering the updates as RSS enclosures might mitigate the concerns of people who are concerned about unauthorized changes to their configurations.

Another opportunity presents itself in the instant messaging space, where important collaborative information is often lost to the ad hoc IM bit bucket. Instead, IM data could be pipelined into an RSS feed for archiving, auditing and indexing. RSS enclosures could speed the adoption of audio and video messages, as well as provide a persistent transport and collaborative synchronization for Tablet ink, OneNote meeting recordings, music and photo sharing.

But the biggest Microsoft opportunity is in the authoring space, where you could perform the same powerful ratifying effect you first rendered with SOAP. What if you were to authorize a freely redistributable runtime version of InfoPath that produced XHTML-ready RSS content? The tool would empower users to drag and drop RSS objects into the container, annotate and format them, then post them via an IETF-standardized API mechanism that you would participate in producing.

Not only would such a tool promote substantial adoption of well-formed XHTML, but it would also promote the use of RSS as an event mechanism in workflow apps and even calendaring and scheduling. RSS enclosures would be a convenient addition to InfoPath forms e-mail distribution methodology to boot.

If InfoPath cant be opened in this manner, theres another prime candidate for RSS authoring: OneNote. As the strategic core (at least for me) of the Tablet platform, OneNote promises a terrific environment for rich text/ink/audio/video micro-content creation, management and routing. With an XML API waiting to be switched on for its second release, now would be the time to act to gain significant market share in the developer community where RSS is already well-seeded.

Steve, thanks for listening. RSS may appear to be just a niche technology, a hippie miracle cure for everything from information overload to e-mail dysfunction. But Id like to see the data on relapsing from RSS. Once you kick the browser, its very hard to go back to the old way of doing things. I look forward to hearing from you, perhaps via your own RSS feed. Thats one channel I look forward to subscribing to.

Check out eWEEK.coms Messaging Center at for more on RSS, IM, and other collaboration technologies.
Be sure to add our messaging and collaboration news feed to your RSS newsreader or My Yahoo page:  

Rocket Fuel