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Microsoft Feeds RSS to Longhorn

Microsoft took a hard look at Really Simple Syndication and concluded that RSS is good for a lot more than notifying readers of a favorite blogger's latest post or as a venue for news sites' latest headlines.

To be sure, the big unveiling of Microsoft's new plans for RSS in the Windows Longhorn operating system at the Gnomedex 5.0 conference this summer wasn't the first time Microsoft promised RSS for Longhorn. Back in 2003, Microsoft talked about putting RSS feeds in a Longhorn desktop UI feature called the Sidebar. RSS, however, was literally relegated to the side of the screen. (At WinHEC this spring, Microsoft indicated the Sidebar feature probably won't be in Longhorn.)

Now Microsoft has an RSS team. The Gnomedex announcement of Microsoft's new RSS strategy came from Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft general manager for Longhorn browsing and RSS. Think about that title for a second. It puts RSS on nearly equal footing with browsing, the little technology over which Microsoft went to the mat with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"RSS is key to how people will use the Internet in the future by automatically delivering the information that is important to them," Hachamovitch said. Wearing a "Longhorn (heart symbol) RSS" T-shirt, Hachamovitch demonstrated that Longhorn's version of IE will have an RSS icon that lights up when it reaches a page that offers an opportunity to subscribe to a feed. Users will be able to view the RSS feed directly in the browser, and Microsoft is designing the process of adding RSS feeds to be as simple from within IE as adding "favorite" Web sites.

Those are the user interface changes, and they are significant. As it stands, to take advantage of RSS, a user has to be aware of the technology; actively seek out an RSS aggregator; select an aggregator from the dizzying array of choices; and (in most cases) remember to launch the aggregator on a daily basis. Making RSS trivial to use from the world's most widely used browser has the potential to ignite end-user adoption of the technology—no mean feat. None of that, however, expands RSS beyond the current paradigm, in which users subscribe to a blog or news feed and receive the most recent items.

Promising TechWatch dialThings get interesting on the back end. RSS 2.0 includes an extension mechanism that allows publishers and clients to define additional elements. Microsoft never met an opportunity to make extensions to a standard that it didn't embrace, but put down your favorite conspiracy theory for the moment. The company produced something called Simple List Extensions; and so far RSS 2.0 spec author Dave Winer and legal scholar/outspoken copyright opponent Lawrence Lessig have offered qualified support. Microsoft made the extensions available through Lessig's Creative Commons, which offers flexible copyright arrangements for creative work. What the Simple List Extensions bring to RSS is freedom from the time-ordered nature of RSS feeds.

The current system presents the most recent items first, with older items fading away after awhile. What Microsoft's extensions do is create a way for items to persist, such as Top 10 lists. Under the extensions, users might only receive RSS notifications when an item has moved a few places in the ordered list, or a new item has come in. The extensions also add a standard place to add properties, giving publishers a place to embed useful information about the feed, item or enclosure.

Fun Fact
There are an estimated 60 million blogs worldwide, and the majority are available via RSS or similar formats.

At the same time, Microsoft is integrating RSS into the Longhorn platform via three components. A Common RSS Feed List and Common RSS Data Store will be available to all applications. A user who subscribes to an RSS feed in IE can also view the same feed—without resubscribing—and the data from that feed in an RSS aggregator, media player, photo software or other applications. (RSS 2.0 adds support for "enclosures," files such as photos or audio included in the RSS feed.) Microsoft is also building in an RSS Platform Sync Engine to use idle network bandwidth when possible to automatically download subscribed-to RSS data and enclosures for use by any application.

As an example of how broadly Microsoft is thinking about RSS, consider the scenarios the company is promoting. There are generic lists, such as Top 10 songs from a music site, a wish list from an online retailer (Amazon is on board already) or a user's ranking of favorite restaurants. In the online retailer example, each item in a list of most popular items can embed such information as price or average customer rating.

Calendaring scenarios are a major focus for Microsoft. An attendee of a business conference might be able to get a feed of conference calendar data—receiving updates to the overall schedule, other events or session location changes. Without going to a site to check, the session location could be updated in the attendee's calendar program, such as Microsoft Outlook. Microsoft is also thinking about digital photo management scenarios, using the enclosures for photos. For example, grandparents might subscribe to a feed that automatically downloads photos to their photo viewing software every time a new picture of the grandkids is posted to a photo blog.

There are a lot of challenges to implementing RSS well. Microsoft is promising some of the end-user focused aspects in Longhorn Beta 1 this summer, and it will be interesting to see how intuitive they can make the RSS parts. The company is promising more detail about the back-end at its Professional Developers Conference in September.

If Microsoft can keep the developer community excited, the company is in a strong position to change the way the majority of users interact with the Web. Instead of always driving our browsers out to the places we want to go, our browsers and RSS could really start fetching what we need for us.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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