Being a hobbyist developer interested in syndication technologies I'm always on the look out for articles that provide useful critiques of the current state of the art. I recently stumbled on an article entitled 10 reasons why RSS is not ready for prime time by Dylan Greene which fails to hit the mark in this regard. Of the ten complaints, about three seem like real criticisms grounded in fact while the others seem like contrived issues which ignore reality. Below is the litany of issues the author brings up and my comments on each
1) RSS feeds do not have a history. This means that when you request the data from an RSS feed, you always get the newest 10 or 20 entries. If you go on vacation for a week and your computer is not constantly requesting your RSS feeds, when you get back you will only download the newest 10 or 20 entries. This means that even if more entires were added than that while you were gone, you will never see them.
Practically every information medium has this problem. When I travel out of town for a week or more I miss the newspaper, my favorite TV news shows and talk radio shows which once gone I'll likely never get to enjoy. With blogs it is different since most blogs provide an online archive but on the other hand most news sites archive their content and require paid access after they're no longer current.
In general, most individual blogs aren't updated regularly enough that being gone for a week or two means that entries are missed. On the other hand most news sites are. In such cases one could leave their aggregator of choice connected and reduce its refresh rate (something like once a day) and let your fingers do the walking. That's exactly what one would have to do with a TiVo (i.e. leave your cable box on).
2) RSS wastes bandwidth. When you "subscribe" to an RSS feed, you are telling your RSS reader to automatically download the RSS file on a set interval to check for changes. Lets say it checks for news every hour, which is typical. Even if just one item is changed the RSS reader must still download the entire file with all of the entries.
The existing Web architecture provides a couple of ways for polling based applications to save bandwidth including HTTP conditional GET and gzip compression over HTTP. Very few web sites actually support both well-known bandwidth saving techniques including the Dylan Green based on a quick check with Rex Swain's HTTP Viewer. Using both techniques can save bandwidth costs by an order of magnitude (by a factor of 10 for the mathematically challenged). Before coming up with sophisticated hacks for perceived problems it'd be nice if website administrators actually used existing best practices before trying to reinvent the wheel in more complex ways.
That said, it would be a nice additional optimization for web sites to only provide only the items that hadn't been read by a particular client for each request for the RSS feed. However I'd like to see us learn to crawl before we try to walk.
3) Reading RSS requires too much work. Today, in 2004, we call it "browsing the Web" - not "viewing HTML files". That is because the format that Web pages happen to be in is not important. I can just type in "msn.com" and it works. RSS requires much more than that: We need to find the RSS feed location, which is always labeled differently, and then give that URL to my RSS reader.
Yup, there isn't a standard way to find the feed for a website. RSS Bandit tries to make this easier by feed lookup via Syndic8 and supporting one click subscription to RSS feeds. However aggregator authors can't do this alone, the blogging tools and major websites that use RSS need to get in on the act as well.
4) An RSS Reader must come with Windows. Until this happens too, RSS reading will only be for a certain class of computer users that are willing to try this new technology. The web became mainstream when Microsoft started including Internet Explorer with Windows. MP3's became mainstream when Windows Media Player added MP3 support.
I guess my memory is flawed but I always thought Netscape Navigator and Winamp/Napster where the applications that brought the Web and MP3s to the mainstream respectively. I'm always amused by folks that think that unless Microsoft supports some particular technology then it is going to fail. It'd be nice if an RSS aggregator but that doesn't mean that a technology cannot become popular until it ships in Windows. Being a big company, Microsoft is generally slow to react to trends until they've proven themselves in the market which means that if an aggregator ever ships in Windows it will happen when news aggregators are mainstream not before.
5) RSS content is not User-Friendly. It has taken about 10 years for the Web to get to the point where it is today that most web pages we visit render in our browser the way that the designer intended. It's also taken about that long for web designers to figure out how to lay out a web page such that most users will understand how to use it. RSS takes all of that usability work and throws it away. Most RSS feeds have no formatting, no images, no tables, no interactive elements, and nothing else that we have come to rely on for optimal content readability. Instead we are kicked back to the pre-web days of simple text.
I find it hard to connect tables, interactive elements and images with “optimal content readability” but maybe that's just me. Either way, there's nothing stoping folks from using HTML markup in RSS feeds. Most of the major aggregators are either browser based or embed a web browser so viewing HTML content is not a problem. Quite frankly, I like the fact that I don't have to deal with cluttered websites when reading content in my aggregator of choice.
6) RSS content is not machine-friendly. There are search engines that search RSS feeds but none of them are intelligent about the content they are searching because RSS doesn't describe the properties of the content well enough. For example, many bloggers quote other blogs in their blog. Search engines cannot tell the difference between new content and quoted content, so they'll show both in the search results.
I'm curious as to which search engine he's used which doesn't have this problem. Is there an “ignore items that are parts of a quote” option on Google or MSN Search? As search engines go I've found Feedster to be quite good and better than Google for a certain class of searches. It would be cool to be able to execute ad-hoc, structured queries against RSS feeds but this would be icing on the cake and in fact is much more likely to happen in the next few years than is possible that we will ever be able to perform such queries against [X]HTML web sites.
7) Many RSS Feeds show only an abridged version of the content. Many RSS feeds do not include the full text. Slashdot.org, one of the most popular geek news sites, has an RSS feed but they only put the first 30 words of each 100+ word entry in their feed. This means that RSS search engines do not see the full content. This also means that users who syndicate their feed only see the first few words and must click to open a web browser to read the full content.
This is annoying but understandable. Such sites are primarily using an RSS feed as a way to lure you to the site not as a way to provide users with content. I don't see this as a problem with RSS any more than the fact that some news sites need you to register or pay to access their content is a problem with HTML and the Web.
8) Comments are not integrated with RSS feeds. One of the best features of many blogs is the ability to reply to posts by posting comments. Many sites are noteworthy and popular because of their comments and not just the content of the blogs.
Looks like he is reading the wrong blogs and using the wrong aggregators. There are a number of ways to expose comments in RSS feeds and a number of aggregators support them including RSS Bandit which supports them all.
9) Multiple Versions of RSS cause more confusion. There's several different versions of RSS, such as RSS 0.9, RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, and RSS 3.0, all controlled by different groups and all claiming to be the standard. RSS Readers must support all of these versions because many sites only support one of them. New features can be added to RSS 1.0 and 2.0 can by adding new XML namespaces, which means that anybody can add new features to RSS, but this does mean that any RSS Readers will support those new features.
That said a general plugin mechanism to deal with items from new namespaces would be an interesting problem to try and solve but sounds way too hard to successfully provide a general solution for.
10) RSS is Insecure. Lets say a site wants to charge for access to their RSS feed. RSS has no standard way for inputing a User Name and Password. Some RSS readers support HTTP Basic Authentication, but this is not a secure method because your password is sent as plain text. A few RSS readers support HTTPS, which is a start, but it is not good enough. Once somebody has access to the "secure" RSS file, that user can share the RSS file with anybody.
Two points. (A) RSS is a Web technology so the standard mechanisms for providing restricted yet secure access to content on the Web apply to RSS and (B) there is no way known to man short of magic to provide someone with digital content on a machine that they control and restrict them from copying it in some way, shape or form.
Aight, that's all folks. I'm off to watch TiVoed episodes of the Dave Chappelle show.