RSS goes to Harvard

UserLand Software has transferred ownership of its RSS 2.0 specification to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. The specification now resides at Harvard, and has been licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike license. An Advisory Board has been established, whose initial members are Dave Winer, Jon Udell and Brent Simmons. It seems the board is more of a decision body than most advisory boards I know of, it having already had its first split vote.

Dan Gillmor comments:

Plainly, this move won’t cause peace to suddenly break out in the RSS format war. But equally plainly, this looks like a positive step toward some resolution of a dispute where personal pique has threatened to derail entirely appropriate professional and technological debates.

I agree that this is indeed a positive step forward. In fact, I’m tempted to say that it is a very wise step. It gives RSS a non-corporate institutional base, which is hugely important for achieving tolerant levels of acceptance in the community at large. Dave’s done the right thing.

Some would argue that it would have been better to submit the spec to a standards body (IETF, W3C, OASIS). I am not convinced that it is necessarily so. Besides the obvious question of which body to submit it to, it strikes me that it may not be critical at all having a standard that “no body” owns (“free”?).

Case settled? From the spec:

RSS is by no means a perfect format, but it is very popular and widely supported. Having a settled spec is something RSS has needed for a long time. The purpose of this work is to help it become a unchanging thing, to foster growth in the market that is developing around it, and to clear the path for innovation in new syndication formats. Therefore, the RSS spec is, for all practical purposes, frozen at version 2.0.1. We anticipate possible 2.0.2 or 2.0.3 versions, etc. only for the purpose of clarifying the specification, not for adding new features to the format. Subsequent work should happen in modules, using namespaces, and in completely new syndication formats, with new names.

Hold that up against the Atom/Echo/Pie roadmap. Is there any conflict between the two? As I see it, no, not really. In fact, it more seems to be more of an issue for RSS 1.0, the RDF way, which supposedly is more “semantic” than RSS 0.91-2.0. If Atom/Echo/Pie delivers just half of what it promises, it should be as semantic as even the “metast” geek would ever wish, so I’m not sure where RSS 1.0 will go. Away, it seems. Or, maybe it’ll find a niche for people who can actually get something out of it that they couldn’t get from the other formats. Heck, Userland has started supporting Trackback, so there might even be a wider support than we’ve seen so far.

The various formats will be somewhat competitive since they can be used for the same thing. But so can a Ford and a Ferrari. They’re basically just cars, and should be seen just as such, when we make up our opinions about “the big picture”. We need to see cars as well as syndication formats in their wider contexts.

If we look at standards for cars (I’m absolutely no expert here!), we can say that what really matters are the contextual standards – for example that the fuel brand is decoupled from the car brand. Add a few other contextual standards, such as envinmental constraints and security standards, but basically, the list is not, and should not be, very long, because then you end up with a 21st Century black Ford T.

Freedom of choice and a level playing field is what we want, be it with our cars, our politicians, or our syndication formats. Yet, we also have common criteria. For syndication formats, perhaps it is a good time to discuss these commonalities and the “basic requirements” that all formats must share. I can see a few such on top of my head:

  • Complete transparency abot IPR issues, licences, etc. Currently, for a change, RSS 2.0 is the format that has the most explicit
  • Common validator for all formats. The Pilgrim/Ruby Feed Validator is a perfect candidate.
  • Open and well-documented XML Schemas for all formats using well-defined NDR. I’m not a schema expert, but J�rgen Thelin‘s RSS 2.0 schema looks like a good candidate, and Tim Bray is working on a schema for Echo. I am not sure where RSS 1.0 stands on this issue.

What else do we need?

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