A Richer RSS Format in the Works

RSS-Data proposal expands RSS and lets it carry more kinds of data. Bound for the BloggerCon conference, the updated format could spur syndication of business information and content, says author Jeremy Allaire.

Jeremy Allaire is hoping to transform the way people exchange information on the Internet.

In an interview this week, Allaire, the technologist-in-residence at General Catalyst Partners and former chief technology officer at Macromedia Inc., told eWEEK he had only hours before launched a proposal for something he called RSS-Data.

"I wrote up a proposal, which I posted on my Weblog, for a new format called RSS-Data, which would provide an ability to provide richer data in RSS feeds," Allaire said. "So that people who want to use RSS as a way to do syndication of information, can syndicate not just news content but theyd be able to syndicate application data as well, data from a database or object data from programs."

Indeed, "What Id like to see is theres this huge grass roots community of developers who have built software in the Weblog space and around RSS, and theres a lot of energy and excitement in that space those standards," Allaire said. "So what Im hoping is that it catalyzes a vision of how RSS can be applied for business-oriented applications and business data exchange, not just news content. And that the developers who build libraries and build tools around this would embrace a format like this and really open up and expand the role of RSS. So thats the hope."

RSS is the Resource Description Framework (RDF) Site Summary or RDF Site Summary (RSS), and is a for-mat for syndicating news and news-oriented information. RSS is a light weight XML format for syndicating Web content. Over time the acronym RSS has evolved to mean Really Simple Syndication to many who use it.

"It depends on whom you ask, and what version of RSS youre talking about," said Mark Pilgrim, a Web de-veloper and trainer in Apex, NC. "There are seven different formats all called RSS, developed by three different vendors and working groups.

Allaire said RSS-Data "would really open up RSS to be a much richer platform for applications to use it for syndication and not just news readers and news clients. Its something Ive been in conversations with Dave Winer [founder of Radio Userland and well-known Weblogger and XML guru] about for some time. So Ive sort of revved this up and Im looking to see what kind of reaction it gets."

Jason Bloomberg, an analyst with ZapThink LLC, a Cambridge, Mass.-based market research firm that focuses on XML and Web services, said: "RSS-Data is a straightforward, simplified serialization approach to RSS content. The idea is to have a quick-and-dirty way of sending RSS over the Internet (or actually any HTTP-based network) without the overhead of SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol]. We would categorize this effort as part of the XML for ordinary people movement—in other words, not of major interest to companies, but useful in its own right all the same."

Les Orchard, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based XML developer who has researched the RSS-Data format, said, "As I as I understand it, RSS-Data is the newest of several attempts to expand the RSS format to carry more varieties of information. For instance, this information could be specific details on new products at Amazon—i.e. price, cover image, release date. It could be movie times, calendar events, online auctions, or any other manner of timely information on which a person might want to keep regular tabs."

Orchard said the idea is that packets of information describing each of these details "can be wrapped up in a way that news feed readers can process and display, while at the same time leveraging the pre-existing infrastructure of RSS subscription feeds. All the standard machinery for subscribing and checking feeds is reused, while plug-ins or the like are added to allow the display, searching, and handling of these new kinds of information beyond the typical block of text from a blog."

"RSS-Data employs a way of representing information in XML that integrates directly with most programming environments," Orchard said. He said the format RSS-Data uses models the types of data used in programming, rather than carefully modeling the in-formation itself. So, instead of coming up with tags to specifically describe a book and its title and price, RSS-Datas format describes general strings and lists and numbers, he said.

"With this approach, a programmer barely has to think much about XML. The programmer would come up with the data structures to describe a book within their program, and then hand that off to an RSS-Data encoder to produce XML," Orchard said. "This XML would then be decoded on the other end by an RSS-Data model in the news feed reader. Its kind of like an attempt at a universal translator between programming languages internal data."

Tim Bray, chief executive of Antarctica Systems Inc., Vancouver, B.C., and co-editor of the World Wide Web Consortiums XML specification, said he took a cursory look at the RSS-Data proposal but had not been able to put a lot of time into it.

"Ive read it and tried to understand and at the moment I just dont see why it would help," Bray said. "But I didnt have that much time to put into it and I may have just somehow missed the point."

Meanwhile, Orchard said he sees some trade-offs with RSS-Data. "To use RSS-Data, you need to use a programming language for which someone has written a translator module," Orchard said. Yet there arent many languages missing this support, he added.

"Also, this way of doing things does not mesh well with other XML technologies, such as XSLT, XPath, SOAP and XQuery," Orchard continued. "And further, since RSS-Data doesnt make the same demands of carefully modeling and defining data structures, its easy to play things fast and loose and possibly miss bugs and inconsistent data. But on the other hand, proponents of RSS-Data might say that the formalism of other XML technologies is too rigid and complex."

RSS-Data and other facets of RSS are bound to be on the minds of developers and attendees at the BloggerCon conference of Webloggers this weekend in Cambridge, Mass. Dave Winer is leading the charge for this con-ference, which is being held at the Harvard Law School.

As Ron Schmelzer, another ZapThink analyst put it: "Theres a lot more to RSS than news feeds."

Eric Newcomer, chief technology officer at IONA Technologies Inc., Waltham, Mass., said of RSS-Data: "On the surface Id say it was an attempt to create a mobile middleware solution based on a content management platform. That would seem like a tough job to me, since most content management systems dont build in the kind of reliability and security you need in a mobile middleware solution like IONAs. The world doesnt need a new standard for this since it can already be accomplished using asynchronous Web services."

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