inessential by Brent Simmons

What we talk about when we talk about RSS

(Disclaimer: I started working with RSS even before creating NetNewsWire nine years ago. I still very much want NetNewsWire to succeed. But know that I don’t speak for NetNewsWire or for its new owner, Black Pixel.)

Varieties of RSS

When we talk about RSS, we’re talking about one of several things:

  1. The syndication format called RSS. Sometimes people also mean Atom when talking about RSS.

  2. RSS as hot topic of conversation.

  3. RSS as plumbing.

  4. The feed-ification of the web.

  5. RSS readers, such as NetNewsWire, Google Reader, FeedDemon, and so on.

People sometimes say that “RSS is dead,” that it lost to Twitter and Facebook. They don’t always specify what they’re talking about, so I’ll look at each meaning of “RSS” and figure out which ones are dead.

And then I’ll play you out with a song.

RSS as format

RSS and Atom output is a standard feature of web publishing systems. New sites and new blogs means new feeds.

I don’t how to demonstrate it, but I think it’s self-evident that as the web grows, the number of feeds grows, so that there are more feeds now than ever.

Not-dead as format.

RSS as hot topic

RSS has been around 15 years or so. Pundits used to be excited about it ushering in a brave new world of airborne unicorns. The unicorns stayed home, where it’s nicer.

Dead as hot topic. (I’m glad about this, in case it’s not clear.)

RSS as plumbing

I subscribe to podcasts in iTunes — those are RSS feeds. Xcode brings me updated documentation via RSS. Every Mac app that uses Sparkle to deliver updates uses RSS. A zillion iOS apps read RSS feeds, even though the word RSS never appears in the app.

Boring. Useful. Not-dead as plumbing.

Feed-ification of the web

Twitter and Facebook timelines are feeds. They could be expressed using the RSS or Atom formats specifically, but often they’re JSON. It amounts to the same thing: lists that update with new content over time.

The concept of the feed has been amazingly successful. Not-dead as generic “feed” concept.

RSS Readers

I think this is what people mean they say RSS lost to Twitter and Facebook.

Let’s set aside the notion that the links that people post on Twitter and Facebook have to come from somewhere, and in many cases those links came via a person who uses an RSS reader. I don’t have any idea how to quantify that, and I don’t know what its importance is.

I suspect that a world with Twitter but without RSS readers is a place with fewer links and more cat photos. (I like cats, so it wouldn’t be all bad.)

(And then there are things like Twitterfeed which republish RSS feeds on Twitter.)

Here’s what I think is actually dead: the notion that software that makes you subscribe to feeds that you run across in your browser will ever cross the chasm.

It’s just too geeky for most people.

We can be forgiven for hoping that wasn’t true in 2002, when the geek-level of the average internet user was higher than it is now.

But we know better in 2011. (We’ve known better for years now.)

One way forward for RSS readers

Even still, the number of people who like RSS readers as they are is pretty high. They’d like them to be better, yes, but in the sense that people always want their software to be better.

If those news-junky geeks are just a single-digit percentage of the total market, that’s still a ton of people (at least on Mac and iOS). You can build a business and make millions of dollars with an RSS reader.

So that’s one way forward. Build a great RSS reader, then buy a beach-house.

The more interesting way forward for RSS readers

Here’s the song I promised.

The software’s job is to bring people articles that they’d like, or need, to read. Think of the app as a reader, not as an RSS reader strictly. (How the articles come in is not important. RSS will still play a major role, but it should be invisible to everyone except those geeks who get it.)

The user interface has to evolve to be much less email-like, and everything has to get way easier than it is now.

At the same time, any given reader needs to know where it lands on the entertainment/productivity spectrum. There are beautiful, fun UIs that aren’t efficient, and there are efficient UIs that aren’t much fun to use.

Then use a mix of recommendation, discovery, and relevance to bring people the articles and media they want. Social media play a giant role here, as does more formal curation and technologies like latent semantic mapping.

Beauty and fun and efficiency and discovery and relevance add up to delight.

Do-able? Sure thing. You bet. Five years ago it was very difficult. Today it’s do-able.

So that’s the second way forward.

Make a great reader, then buy an island in the South Pacific.


Yes and no. It’s plumbing, and, behind-the-scenes, RSS is doing a lot more work than most people realize, outside of RSS readers.

We understand the limit of the appeal of a traditional RSS reader. The idea that those apps as-they-are-now could become mass market hits is finished.

They can still be modest hits, though, and ambitious and smart developers will go well beyond the traditional RSS reader and make reader apps that will become mass-market hits.

And those reader apps will still make great use of RSS, but the RSS-iness will become invisible plumbing.

Summary: it’s complicated, but “not-dead” is the correct answer.