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Summary:

A brush fire has been swirling through the blogosphere of late over whether RSS is dead or possibly dying. But is it 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.

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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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Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Les Chatfield

  1. Great post, I’ve seen a lot of controversy swirling around this issue, including Asa’s rather rude reply to Camen’s criticism. My own take is that neither RSS nor the Web are dead. It’s Firefox that is actually dying. Mozilla has fallen behind the curve in terms of speed, agility and support for modern standards, and Asa’s chest-beating comments seem to focus on what Mozilla did in the past (innovated RSS support in the Web browser).

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    1. Yes, I think Camen’s post was as much about Firefox as it was about RSS, and Firefox has had trouble making headway, particularly against Chrome (see my post earlier today about Firefox’s market share growth vs. Chrome)

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      1. I also agree this is as much about Firefox as RSS.

        There’s been discussion elsewhere that RSS is a specialist, hard to use tool for more technically sophisticated users, while Twitter is for everyman (or woman).

        Maybe. But Mozilla would be wise to cater for those tech savvy users — they are the people who decide which browsers others get to use. Abandoning RSS could see specialist users move back to IE or look elsewhere.

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    2. Dying ?

      It just took the first place as Europe’s most used browser ahead of IE and (the tech darling) Chrome.

      Dying indeed.

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      1. Actually those stats showed that IE has lost market share to Chrome, FireFox usage hasn’t changed significantly.

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    3. Exactly! I was just going to comment, “why does it matter anymore that Firefox makes it difficult? People use Chrome these days anyway.”

      I don’t have the privileged of having the fastest computer around and Firefox just makes life harder for me (even Thunderbird does sometimes) because it slows down my computer significantly. Not to mention, I live in Indonesia and you don’t want to know how slow the connection gets around here. And to add to that: the add-ons are kind of a hassle compared to Chrome’s extensions.

      Sadly, like Firefox, I haven’t been able to keep up. I don’t make a living as a designer, but I haven’t mastered the latest HTML. It’s either getting a bit too complicated or I’m just not aging very well.

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  2. Hi Mathew,

    Happy New Year! Best wishes for 2011.

    I think that there is a more interesting angle to this story than RSS, versus tweets versus Website crawling for content syndication.

    The biggest lesson we have learnt in feedly over the last two years is that the hard part is the personalization – the creation and maintenance of the users interest graph (not how you syndicate content).

    Twitter is very suffering from the same problem: who are the interesting people to follow, how do you go beyond what is happening right now to what is important/most relevant, how to you understand and cluster things, etc. etc..

    The core innovation in this space will happen in how easy and transparent the personalization will be and how effective and contextual the filtering will be.

    Twitter is a great sharing and amazing networking tool but it does not really have any competitive advantage when it come to personalization and filtering, specially given that the users interest graph will be most likely fragmented across different services [twitter, facebook, google reader, quora, stackoverflow, dribbble, flickr, etc..].

    What facebook is doing with the like buttons and the open graph is a lot more interesting.

    The battle for the hyper personalization is just starting. My guess is that there will not be one solution but actually a lot of different experiences. Ideally all those experiences will be built on top of an interest graph which will be open and portable.

    Edwin, co-founder/CEO feedly.com

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    1. Thanks, Edwin — I agree that personalization and filters for all the info we have coming at us is a big hole the market needs to fill. Thanks for the comment.

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  3. Extremely well put. Hopefully we can turn the DEFCON alarm back down now and all breathe deeply.

    I do think RSS has actually achieved mainstream adoption though. The truth is, ton’s of users use RSS every day but most just don’t realize that’s what it is or care.

    Just like tons of people use HTML, JPEGS, MP3s, etc. All “mainstream” technologies but not necessarily household words, and they never will be. To the end-user, the product just works and who cares what’s under the hood.

    The average end-user doesn’t give a damn. He/She just wants to read their news.

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  4. A few months ago I finally unsubscribed to most blog networks that will remain anonymous and added pretty much everything GigaOm offers en masse.

    This article and the recent TC debacle about RSS is an example of why. While everyone else seems to be circling the drain with more sensationalist headlines and the negative comments such stories attract, I can come to GigaOm for more honest and reasonable analysis. This is also reflected in the good natured comments people leave, even if the people posting the comments don’t necessarily agree with the author.

    Thank you Mathew, Om Malik and everyone else at GigaOm for your integrity and for continuing to setting a good example in the face of all this negativity.

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    1. Thanks, Ruben — that is a big compliment. Much appreciated!

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  5. One thing often overlooked is technologies are like old soldiers, they never die, they just fade away.

    There are people still using Apple Newton Messagepads, I guess there may be some still using Lynx.

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    1. Absolutely. There are still many mainframes still chugging along….

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  6. [...] puts the wrong perspective into users mind. I would suggest you read Matthew Ingram’s article about RSS being dead too. Subscribe to Our RSS Feeds for regular updates or follow us Twitter or become a fan on [...]

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  7. If the HTML spec was frozen at version 2.0 then the web could have easily died. RSS as a consumer facing technology is critically ill. The irony is that Winer is most responsible for this result. He is more concerned about his legacy and he fears that loosening his grip on the spec would diminish that. If Dave was as smart as he thinks he is then he would accept that RSS needs to evolve and become more usable to people that don’t care about its technological underpinnings. It should just work and obviously it hasn’t and won’t until something changes.

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  8. I switched to Chrome from Safari and the RSS functionality is one of the things I miss.

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  9. Nietzsche Started It Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    And 125 years ago Zarathustra proclaimed God and religion dead. That news also appears to have been slightly premature.

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  10. Great post, thanks, i’m not sure Rss or web is dead but your rss link is really dead lol
    What will make the web of tomorrow is the gain of time, centralisation but with full control of your datas…
    indeed i think web is dead

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