February 13, 2004

The Great RSS vs. Atom News Feed Debate

CNET News.com reports that "Google's Blogger service is bypassing Really Simple Syndication in favor of an alternative technology, a move that has sparked more discord in a bitter dispute over Web log syndication formats." Instead of the RSS feed capability previously offered in Blogger Pro, Blogger is now exclusively supporting Atom for blog content syndication. Goodbye RSS for new Blogger users. While there are similarities between RSS and Atom, the developer community is getting pretty heated up about the debate between these two specifications.

Last year, CNET's special report on "Battle of the Blogs" provided a good explanation of the underlying debate. Basically, Dave Winer, who is credited with much of the development behind RSS 2.0, had frozen its core development "to keep the developers from screwing with it," so that it was kept "simple". This didn't sit well with others, so they decided to come up with their own flavor of blog content syndication, which along the way has been named Pie, Echo, and now Atom.

The problem is that while RSS and Atom are more alike than not, they are competing specs that could splinter the market. A number of bloggers have posted that RSS was really for web site content syndication, while Atom is geared toward blog syndication. There are many news aggregator programs and web site services that work with RSS, but very few will read Atom at the moment. Upon doing a quick Google search, I discovered that BottomFeeder is an open source news aggregator client that runs on many different operating systems (Windows, Mac, Linux, Unix, etc.) and supports news feeds in both RSS and Atom formats.

While RSS isn't going away (at least not any time soon), Atom is trying to be more things to more people. RSS proponents are concerned as to what a competing standard may do to splinter the marketplace. After all, for quite a few years, if you wanted to burn DVDs, you had to choose between buying a DVD-R/W or DVD+R/W drive and cross your fingers that the DVDs would work on all of your equipment (e.g., DVD player, laptop DVD drive, desktop DVD-ROM drive, etc.). Only fairly recently have dual-format burners become popular to ensure consumers could use their burned DVD's in the way they were expecting to use them. Thus I foresee that if Atom picks up more momentum, we may see more dual-format news aggregators like BottomFeeder on the market.

Atom proponents are stymied by the freeze on the RSS core, because they see that there is much more that RSS is capable of doing and becoming. Some say that on one hand, the ability to further develop RSS in the Atom format (rather than stagnation) is a good thing, but it also adds to its complexity. That is precisely why some RSS proponents want to keep RSS frozen -- to keep it simple so that it doesn't take expensive consultants and programmers to deploy it. In other words, it may not be perfect, but right now it's simple enough and works well enough that the masses can use it. It's not hard to see the logic on both sides of the debate, but unfortunately, it's become personal for some of the key players. There's been name calling and other less-than-productive approaches taken, which only serve to cloud the issues.

Even before I created this blog, I saw the unique value that RSS news feeds bring to both content providers and their reader audience. Now I and many other bloggers are faced with the decision whether or not to add and support Atom-based news feeds. If the blogging software vendors start including Atom support out-of-the-box similar to the way that Movable Type included RSS support, this may not be so bad. With any luck, it should just be another button link on my blog pages. However, right now I just don't have the time to go out of my way and manually integrate Atom support -- especially since Atom isn't all that prevalent yet. However, its backers are working very hard on a proposal for the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to assume responsibility for Atom, which would in effect make it a standard. If Movable Type and other mainstream blogger developers add seamless Atom support in an upgrade, that could be doable.

Google's recent decision is interesting in of itself. For a long time, the standard Blogger software didn't include any RSS support, which is why they lost bloggers to other systems like Radio Userland, Movable Type, and TypePad. Now, after Google's acquisition, they've gone exclusively with Atom support. Is Google crazy, or crazy like a fox? I certainly haven't chosen any side yet, but I have to admit my concern over RSS being frozen. Emerging technologies have a hard time emerging when they're not allowed to evolve. Apple tried to keep tight rein over their specifications, and it made them the market leader of a 10% market for many years, while the PC platform flourished. Notice that I'm not saying that one was "better" than the other, but rather notice the effect that strict control had on its adoption.

In the interim, these developments bear watching to see which syndication standards are appropriate to support on one's web site or blog. While RSS is the clear leader right now, I still remember the days when most people thought Betamax would be around forever as the clearly superior format to VHS. Such is the nature of emerging technologies. The moral of the story is that it's definitely too soon to tell, and there may be room for both standards as long as the context is appropriately set. Given the intensity of the debate so far, I think it's safe to say we're in for more colorful developments before it's over.

[2.13.04, 11:51am - Correction: A number of newsreaders are now compatible with Atom feeds. The AtomEnabled beta site lists the following: NewsMonster, NewsGator, FeedDemon, NetNewsWire, MacroMedia Central, NewzCrawler, BottomFeeder, Shrook, Feeds on Feeds, Bloglines, WinRSS and Pears.

The trick is that you may need to download one of the latest versions to find Atom support included. For example, NewzCrawler didn't add support for the Atom 0.3 specification until version 1.6 Beta 3, which was released on January 23, 2004, and only recently added "improved Atom 0.3 support" in version 1.6 Beta 4, which was just released last week on February 5, 2004.

Many thanks to Bob Ambrogi for pointing this out via e-mail and on his LawSites blog. He also provided me with Blogger's explanation as to why they chose to support Atom. This is one of the things I like best about blogging -- within hours of posting this, a savvy person like Bob appropriately pointed me to the source, and as a result I was able to post more accurate information the same day.]

Topic(s):   Blogging Tips  |  Web Wizardry
Posted by Jeff Beard
Comments

What we need is sofware that can build Atom feeds and parsers so the masses can use it.

Posted by: rockyraccoon at March 29, 2004 12:57 PM

RSS 2.0 is flexible and extensible, yes, but only from a producer point of view.

For users, readers, aggregators et al, it's plain and simply too flexible - practically everything is optional, and the definitions are not rigid enough, you never know what's in a title or decription (HTML or plain text, a summary or a full post, etc.).

These are not issues that can be fixed with extensions, and the core is frozen.

Posted by: Anon at February 16, 2004 04:11 PM

I just started using a news aggregator this past week. I'm using Bloglines.com, a web-based aggregator that supports both RSS and Atom (though I think the Atom support is still in beta).

Why would anyone use anything other than a web-based client for gaining access to web-based content?

The problem here is in the clients and clients that support both formats make it a non-issue for users.

I'm a user.

I don't give a rat's ass whether the blogs I read have RSS or Atom feeds. What matters is what my aggregator supports.

So, it seems to me that all new clients ought to be supporting both.

Of course, Atom support is a moving target, and that's why a web-based aggregator makes so much sense, because there is no client-side installation.

In short, I just don't get why people have gotten their panties in a wad over this.

Posted by: David at February 15, 2004 06:50 PM

OK guys, which is it: is RSS 2.0 extensible to do the things that Atom has stated are goals, or not?

Posted by: anon at February 15, 2004 02:54 PM

"I can definitely see both formats living together if it becomes beneficial for business feeds to take one side and bloggers to take another."

Businesses like MS, CNN, Yahoo, mailman listservs, etc. have taken one side, almost exclusively. That's great to see both formats living together in happily-ever-after land. What I see is the cost of wasted development effort, maintaining two formats that do the same thing, functionally.

Mark Pilgrim writes, "The truth is it's only extensible if you're willing to play by his rules, which keep changing." Also, "Content producers want more freedom than RSS provides, so they've chosen a truly open format."

These are both factually false statements, to a very large extent: The truth is that ATOM is only extensible if you're willing to play by Sam Ruby's and Mark Pilgrim's rules and a loose-knit band, and the rules don't change much. Also, I believe it is a personal issue that MARK wants more "freedom" than Dave Winer provides. Mark would like to believe he represents ALL content providers, but such is factually incorrect by a long shot.

This last point, however, is not entirely unreasonable, imv. The RSS specification PROCESS could be improved, vastly imo. The Atom specification process was EQUALLY POOR in different ways, but it would require more discussion than I have time for to demonstrate why. (Which I've done before anyway.)

Anybody that believes the Atom process is truly open is factually mistaken, as it is not even close. It gives that APPEARANCE, of course. (Those who believe Atom is open, in error, must be somewhat Deanic, and perhaps still suffering from the Dean cam-pain-train of recent past...;-)

Btw, I believe the flaws in the Atom process demonstrates why it delivered very little in the way of innovation for either developers, but ESPECIALLY for the users. That'd be somewhat of a matter of opinion, of course. The innovation is largely "promised" as coming right round the next corner, but I've been fed that line one time too many, so am HIGHLY skeptical.

Posted by: JayT at February 15, 2004 01:06 PM

"and RSS isn't going to change" -- Dave Winer

There you have it folks, the crux of the problem.

Posted by: Mike at February 15, 2004 11:55 AM

Factual discrepancy: Atom is no more "blog" centric than RSS is; if anything, RSS is more blog centric of the two.

RSS is TOO simple.

For example:

- It should be in the CORE of RSS to allow for multiple contibutors to an Item.

- RSS 2.0 lacks both Summary and Description elements. It is not correct to overload the use of the RSS "description" element.

Atom fits nicely into a space where:
- a small independent web-logger can build an Atom template for their favorite application

- a programmer can create Atom output with no more difficulty than implementing something similar, but less capable, in RSS

- a larger content provider might well find that the CORE Atom, sans extensions, meets their needs without introducing uneeded complexity.

The two issues noted above - Multiple contributors (n number of Persons), and distinct Summary and Content elements - are enough to satisfy the three scenarios listed.

Not so with RSS 2.0.

Face it - Atom had the benefit of experience of many people over many years now. RSS was a terrific first step, there is nothing wrong with moving on.

Its clear from Dave Winer's opinion, weighed in everywhere, that he is less interested in moving forward than the rest.

So be it.

Posted by: Mike at February 15, 2004 11:49 AM

RSS 2.0 /is/ extensible.

http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/tech/rss#extendingRss

It's just that simple. If you want to extend it, use a namespace.

Posted by: Dave Winer at February 15, 2004 11:00 AM

Add My Yahoo! to the list of aggregators that supports Atom. http://jeremy.zawodny.com/blog/archives/001585.html

Ignore Dave's FUD about RSS being extensible. The truth is it's only extensible if you're willing to play by his rules, which keep changing. See http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/bloggingFormatsProtocolsMay2003 and http://backend.userland.com/davesRss2PoliticalFaq for more FUD.

Content producers want more freedom than RSS provides, so they've chosen a truly open format. End of story. And given how quickly Atom support has taken off, an open format obviously filled a much-needed market space.

Posted by: Mark at February 15, 2004 09:43 AM

Actually, for a new blogger, in most cases, offering support for both formats is as simple as clicking one more button or adding one more plugin. Movable Type, TypePad, Blosxom, LiveJournal, and many others offer drop-in support of both formats in parallel. Only Blogger, to my knowledge, has made an either/or sort of choice.

Technically savvy users do have the option of doing XSLT transforms from Atom 0.3 to RSS 1.0 or 2.0, for example: http://www.aaronland.info/xsl/atom/0.3/ , though that's obviously not feasible for the average Blogspot user.

The argument for RSS over Atom often comes down to "simplicity", but the truth is that any tool developer savvy enough with an XML parser to produce or consume an RSS feed already has the skills to do the same with Atom. The early FUD was that handling Atom was going to require the skills that only large corporations could bring to bear, and this has already been disproven by the large number of "one man shops" and hobbyists who have supported Atom with their tools.

Posted by: Dave Walker at February 15, 2004 09:39 AM

RSS is extensible, so if the Atom people, and Google (crazy or crazy like a fox, great characterization) could have added to it, instead of trying to replace it. Also, content providers can safely provide RSS only, no aggregator is going to stop reading it, and RSS isn't going to change, so you're safe.

Posted by: Dave Winer at February 15, 2004 09:07 AM

Great post!

Posted by: Ernie at February 13, 2004 09:03 AM

Jeff-

I certainly haven't taken sides on this issue yet, as I am just learning more and more about Atom as the days go by, but I do feel that there are certain benefits to both the current (and static) developement of RSS and the lack of further developement. I like RSS for the main reason that it is fast, easy to download into an aggregator and I don't get a lot of the other "noise" that I could get from an e-mail message. I get the meat right off the bone and I get to choose which parts I want to eat. So with the exception of a header graphic on the feed, I like the fact that I can read, click, and read some more.

Now, from a marketers perspective, I can totally see the other side of the story as well. With the increase in spam filtering, messgages not getting through to end users, RSS is a great format to start incorporating as an alternative. BUT, lots of e-newsletters are driven off of advertising, which in most cases require some graphical input. So by the fact that RSS has stopped progressing, Atom might become a viable alternative for Business Blogging, or advertising revenue.

The simple fact is that syndication is now the way to go on many news and information sites, not only blogs. The fact that my aggregator is mostly filled with Web site feeds vs. blog feeds is evident of that to me. I can definitely see both formats living together if it becomes beneficial for business feeds to take one side and bloggers to take another.

Posted by: Fred at February 13, 2004 08:29 AM