Morphing Blogs to Business

Industry veteran Allaire's plan would simplify syndication.

A new way of exchanging data on the Internet has been hatched by one of the industrys veteran luminaries that could push blogging into the realm of "business data exchange."

Jeremy Allaire, technologist in residence at General Catalyst Partners LLC, in Cambridge, Mass., and former chief technology officer at Macromedia Inc., has drafted a proposal for what he calls RSS-Data, which enables rich data to be added in RSS (Resource Description Framework Site Summary) feeds.

For example, people who want to use RSS as a way to syndicate information can syndicate not just news content but also application data, data from a database or object data from programs, Allaire said.

"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 around 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," he said. "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 a lightweight XML format for syndicating Web content and is used for syndicating news and news- oriented information. Over time, 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 developer and trainer in Apex, N.C.

Allaire said RSS-Data "would really open up RSS to be a much richer platform for applications to use for syndication and not just news readers and news clients.

"Its something Ive been in conversations with Dave Winer [founder of UserLand Software Inc., of Acton, Mass., and a 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 Cambridge-based ZapThink LLC, a market research company 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 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., XML developer who has researched the RSS-Data format, said, "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 "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," Orchard said.

RSS-Data also employs a way of representing information in XML that integrates directly with most programming environments, Orchard said.

Tim Bray, chief executive of Antarctica Systems Inc., in Vancouver, British Columbia, and co-editor of the World Wide Web Consortiums XML specification, said he took a cursory look at the RSS-Data proposal.

"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."

"RSS 2.0 currently provides a standard way to attach structured data—using namespaces, each of which is defined by an XML schema," said Anne Thomas Manes, a Boston-based analyst with Burton Group. "Yes—XML Schema is more complicated than the XML-RPC [XML Remote Procedure Call] data model [used by RSS-Data], but its also much more versatile. Strongly typed languages, such as Java and C#, much prefer to use XML Schema than the XML-RPC data model."