RSS Is Alive But Hidden

Don't Panic

There has been much consternation on the Internet in the weeks since Google announced their decision to shut down Google Reader on July 1, 2013. Count me among the first that initially recoiled in horror when I read the announcement…in Google Reader of course. The thing is that for many Google Reader has become an engine that processes large amounts of information and makes it available seemingly everywhere we need it. And so while it is certainly a niche product for Google, Google Reader is incredibly important to those who use it daily.

The concern regarding the closure of Google Reader is also borne out of the fact that in popularizing their tool Google essentially wiped out all of the competition for RSS (stands for Really Simple Syndication) news readers out of the market. Part of the reason Google was able to achieve this was based on the fact that Google Reader could be used and kept in sync across multiple platforms. The Google Reader API also allowed other applications (such as Reeder which I use and love) to to provide new news feed reading experiences without having to build all the back end systems required to manage and poll feeds. So knowing that Google Reader was going away many people began scrambling for the answer to the question, “Is RSS dead?” Because if RSS is dead some people will have to figure out new ways to read their news until developers can figure out a technology that can replace RSS.

Before I go further I might as well give a little primer on RSS for those who haven’t been RSS junkies like me for the last decade. RSS is a text file format that essentially describes content that is published on the web. The RSS file has indications of things like the title, author, published date, post content and post link to name a few common items. The RSS file typically gets updated via a content management system (CMS) such as WordPress and sits there on a web server waiting to be grabbed by programs that request it. The end result is a portable version of your content that can then be grabbed and viewed in other applications so people can: a) be notified when you have published new content; and b) read your content in their preferred application. RSS has taken on increased importance in recent years because the ability to add an enclosure link for audio or video files has driven the growth of distributing media via podcasts.

So RSS is important and Google Reader is important to RSS because they play the middle man between application developers and content consumers. Does that mean the demise of Google Reader will mean the end of RSS? That’s not likely for a few reasons that I briefly summarize below.

  • Several companies (including Feedly and Digg) have already jumped into the fray to announce their support for new RSS news reading applications. Because while the reader market is small potatoes for Google it represents an opportunity for a much smaller company.
  • RSS is baked into so many applications and websites, and you don’t even know it. Take WordPress for example. Every blog (self or hosted) that utilizes WordPress (there are millions of them) generates RSS feeds unless the site maintainer specifies otherwise. Most don’t turn it off so if you go to the blog address and add “/feed” (without the quotes) on the end you will see the RSS feed.
  • As I mentioned above podcasting is powered by RSS. Apple’s iTunes requires an RSS feed (with special tags for media) for podcasts that wish to be listed in their directory. The same feed that iTunes uses can be plugged into news reader applications and websites to keep track of podcast updates without iTunes.
  • Other innovative options for the utilization of RSS are available for those who are seeking easier ways to track, consume and share published information. IFTTT (short for if this then that) is a great example of such innovation. Using IFTTT you can grab RSS feeds and send their content to multiple destinations including social networks, blogs and (one of my favorite services) Evernote.

As you can see I don’t think RSS is going away anytime soon. So no panic is necessary. What’s happening is that RSS is moving more into the background. It’s the plumbing hidden in the walls rather than the shingles on the house, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Because  what really matters to RSS junkies is having the ability to easily subscribe to, consume and share content. It’s obvious that developers for smaller Internet companies get this importance so they continue to bake RSS into their services even as they create interfaces that make RSS invisible to the user.

Looking ahead I do see the importance of RSS continuing the wane as larger companies (such as Google, Facebook and Twitter) de-emphasize (or kill altogether) RSS in favor of their own (limited) interface specifications (aka APIs) that they want developers to use. I think that smaller Internet companies and independent developers will continue to keep RSS alive because it is so easy and cost effective to use compared to the overhead required to support APIs. Eventually something will come along that will supplant RSS but my belief is that whatever it is will be an improvement over what RSS provides us today.

3 thoughts on “RSS Is Alive But Hidden

  1. […] Everything was going great with Feedburner even beyond their acquisition by Google in June 2007. Google’s support of RSS at the time was strong, particularly in conjunction with Google’s Reader product. Google added more features to the product, most importantly (for Google) AdSense, a product that could generate revenue for publishers too. Meanwhile Google got bigger and other products, YouTube for example, held greater advertising revenue potential. So things just sort of went quiet at Feedburner as Google dedicated fewer and fewer resources to the product. It also became obvious to Google that the audience that consumed feeds directly was a niche one by Google’s growing audience standards. Then came the announcement of the shut down of the Feedburner API and eventually Google Reader. […]

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