A brush fire has been swirling through the blogosphere of late over whether RSS is dead, dying, or possibly severely injured and in need of assistance. It seems to have started with a post from UK-based web designer Kroc Camen that got picked up by Hacker News and re-tweeted a lot. The flames were fanned by a blog post from TechCrunch that drove RSS developer Dave Winer into a bit of a Twitter frenzy. But is RSS actually doomed, or even ailing? Not really. Like plenty of other technologies, it is just becoming part of the plumbing of the real-time web.
Camen’s criticisms seem focused on the fact that Firefox doesn’t make it easy to find or subscribe to RSS feeds from within the browser (although Mozilla staffer Asa Dotzler takes issue with that case in a comment near the bottom of the post). Instead of the usual RSS icon, he says, there is nothing except an entry in a menu. But did anyone other than a handful of geeks and tech aficionados make use of those RSS icons? It’s not clear that many regular web users have done so — or ever will. Browsers like Internet Explorer have had built-in support for RSS for years, but there’s little sign of it becoming mainstream.
So can we say that RSS is dead? Sure — in the same way that HTML is dead, or the web itself is dead (if the “death of RSS” idea seems familiar, that’s because it has reared its head several times before). There used to be plenty of HTML editors out there, which allowed people to create their own websites and web pages, but they never really went mainstream either, and HTML has evolved to the point where it’s a specialty that requires actual programming skills in order to be effective. Is that bad thing? Not if you make a living as a web designer. Hypertext markup language has become part of the plumbing of the web, and now allows far more utility than it used to.
In a similar vein, Wired magazine recently advanced the argument that the web is dead, based largely on some faulty data and a perception that apps for devices like the iPhone and iPad are taking over from the regular web. While there is some reason for concern about walled gardens such as Facebook and the control that Apple continues to exert over its ecosystem — as both the web’s inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and law professor Tim Wu have argued in separate opinion pieces — the reality is that the web is continuing to evolve, and apps could well be just an interim step in that evolution.
In the same way, RSS has become a crucial part of how web content gets fed from blogs and other sites into real-time services such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as aggregation apps like Flipboard, as CEO Mike McCue noted during the debate between Winer and TechCrunch. Do Twitter and Facebook compete with RSS to some extent, in terms of content discovery? Sure they do — but they also benefit from it. Along with real-time publishing tools such as Pubsubhubbub, RSS is one of the things that provides a foundation for the apps and services we see all around us, including real-time search (and plenty of people still use RSS readers, says venture capital blogger Fred Wilson).
The fact that RSS may be fading in terms of mainstream user awareness is actually a good thing rather than a bad one. The sooner people can forget about it because it just works in the background, the better off we’ll all be — in the same way many of us have forgotten (if we ever knew) how the internal-combustion engine works, because we no longer have to pull over and fix them ourselves.
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