RSS came from the publishing industry

Last night’s conversations were incredibly interesting, the next day I’d like nothing better than to continue them. One thing I wish I had said to Om, so we could have developed the idea (or perhaps he might have disagreed) is my belief that RSS did not come from the tech industry as so many assume — it came from the publishing industry. Why? Well, the ideas in RSS are hardly technologically revolutionary. As many have pointed out, ad nauseum, CDF had some of them, and as you can see in this post from Mary Hodder, there’s no doubt something like it would have come along eventually even if we hadn’t promoted it so aggressively in the late 90s and early 00s.

The event that made the difference, that in hindsight was the tipping point for RSS, was the adoption of the format by the New York Times in 2002. The publishing industry, unlike the tech industry, didn’t feel threatened, apparently, by a thriving standard, so after the Times went first, they all just followed, compatibly, without reinventing, without gratuitous incompatiblity, without excuses, they just did it.

Now, also in hindsight, it’s pretty clear the reason it was RSS 2.0, both in the Times and in the blogging world is because I wanted it to be RSS 2.0. The Times delegated the decision to me. So I did the same thing with the Times’s content flow that I was doing with Radio’s and Manila’s and my own on Scripting News. All those things, flowing the same way, was enough to drive adoption of a de facto standard. The others in the blogging industry, which is definitely part of the tech industry, did what the tech industry always does, they tried to lock their users in through tiny little niggling incompatibilities — until Apple came along, and brazenly did what no one else dared to do. They built on the generous openness of the publishing industry, and never said thanks, and then lied about their own openness and reserved for themselves the right to decide who can read their content. And so far, they’re geting away with it.

There’s nothing in Apple’s past to suggest that it could possibly be different. They’ve never willingly let others compete with them. Bill Gates has never forgotten that they sued him over the trashcan. Only occasionally, when Jobs wasn’t there, did they flirt with the idea that competiton might be permitted.

But we don’t need the tech industry, and it’s about time their attitude reflected that. They didn’t bring us the web, that came from a researcher in academia. And they didn’t bring us RSS, that came from the publishing industry.

41 responses to this post.

  1. I have to disagree with Mary Hodder statement something like it would have come along eventually even . Nothing comes out of thin air. After Netscape abandoned RSS and Microsoft CDF gathering dust, you and you alone championed the RSS cause. I may disagree with you in your ways, but you are only person who should get credit for both RSS and OPML technologies.


  2. Well, I’m not well versed in the exact history of it all (even though it was dead center in my computer career), so I don’t know if I would be as bold as the previous poster to estrange other people involved. But one can’t argue with the level of involvment of our good ‘ole host Papa Feed. 🙂


  3. Posted by Jim Armstrong on January 20, 2006 at 1:26 pm


    Last year Apple advertised for a RSS software engineer, and I thought about sending you the position listing, because it is my belief the no qualifies for a job at Apple with what is on their resume.

    Anyway, after reading about how Apple’s version of RSS is broken, I see this listing in todays Apple jobs.

    I know you don’t want or need a job at Apple, but you should apply just to see what happens.

    Title: Software Engineer
    Req. ID: 2533948
    Location: Santa Clara Valley, California
    Country: United States
    Req Date: 19-Jan-2006

    The Social Software team is responsible for the frameworks and daemon that provide underlying RSS support to Safari RSS, the most comprehensive and innovative integration of RSS technology into a web browser to-date. We are also chartered with tracking the rapidly developing field of Social Software, and developing related new products. As part of the Internet Technologies department, we work closely with engineers of the iChat, Mail, Safari & WebKit, and other teams, to deliver high-visibility Internet-savvy components of Mac OS X.


    As an engineer on the Social Software team, you will be responsible for maintaining and enhancing our RSS support, ensuring that the existing functionality in Safari RSS continues to exceed expectations. You will also help to define and implement future Syndication and Social Software features.

    Required Experience:
    – Detailed knowledge of C++
    – Familiarity with HTML and XML
    – B.S. in Computer Science and 3-5 years of direct industry experience

    Preferred Experience:
    – Knowledge of SQLite or equivalent databases
    – Knowledge of XML parsing methodology and tools
    – Familiarity with cross-platform and/or open source development
    – Knowledge of Objective-C, Xcode, and gdb
    – Familiarity with Syndication-related standards such as RSS & Atom


  4. Posted by Ian Hilbert on January 20, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    “Now you might htink I’m aprt of the tech industry, but I resigned in 1994. My resignation letter was Bill Gates vs the Internet. Read it. It’s still what’s happening. We don’t need the tech industry, and it’s about time their attitude reflected taht. They didn’t bring us the web, that came from a researcher in academia. And they didn’t bring us RSS, that came from the publishing industry.”

    Where’s the link?


  5. What does Jim Armstrong mean when he says “I know you don’t want or need a job at Apple, but you should apply just to see what happens.” Dave, do u have 3 to 5 years experience in RSS ? 🙂 I really love hearing about the history of RSS btw, from RDF/Netscape, New York Times, Yahoo’s take on RSS, and then hearing the debrief from people like Kevin Burton and others in the “post”-RSS scene. Great Post, Ben


  6. The history of RSS + Podcasting by Dave Winer would actually make a kick ass non-Reilly book ! BB


  7. Great post.


  8. The Apple job description should include: “Must be able to blog daily without sounding like a corporate apparatchik.”


  9. I really wish RSS did come from the TECH industy instead of publishing! Why? RSS is nothing more than a micro-format for a directory listing, and it has uses for everything not just news. In fact, OPML is a directory listing of directory listings, completely useless in my opinion, when the recursive nature of directories allows you to have a feed of your feeds (directories within a directory) with ease. And at least the tech industry wouldn’t be so self-centered and might actually make it generic rather than specific to an industry. Its just a bad start for the semantic web folks. Sometimes I like to be overly pessimistic.


  10. Artemi, If the tech industry isn’t creative enough to figure out what to do with accepted formats (besides what is already being done) the blame is solely theirs.

    And doesn’t OPML in fact create a “feed of your feeds” situation, thorugh the recursive nature of directories (which is of course also a directory listing of directory listings .. )?


  11. Posted by Jim Armstrong on January 21, 2006 at 8:38 am

    I’m normally a pretty good speller, but I see I made a grammar error above. Manila comments allowed me to edit my comments, but WordPress doesn’t.

    “because it is my belief the no qualifies for a job at Apple” should have read “because it is my belief that no one qualifies for a job at Apple”

    I was going to add a couple of snarky job requirements, like – Has to be able to walk on water, and change Windows into Wine. And – Perferered experience – Ability to speak Hindi and Sanskrit in order to train your replacement.

    … but I didn’t 😉


  12. Katie,

    Why can’t the same RSS standard be used to list feeds you are subscribed to? Why do you need another standard – OPML? Just like a directory is actually a file in your file system that contains a list of all files within it. Note that those files can be directories too, that doesn’t matter, the list simply specifies the type of the item it points to (is it another RSS document or a HTML document or XML, image, etc, etc). Maybe I don’t get something, and I’d love to be proven wrong!

    As far as the tech industry is concerned, I think RSS is not the perfect standard for a directory listing, and wasn’t really designed to be so generic from the start…if w3c was to develop the standard, I’m sure they would take all industries into account…


  13. Just on a historical point, wasn’t RSS 2.0 released in late 2002, maybe 6 months after New York Times had started using RSS?


  14. Danny, that’s absolutely right. I simplified things a bit, in fact it’s a even more complicated than your story. The Times, when we first published their XML feeds, wasn’t even RSS at all, it was a proprietary format of theirs called NYTimes. You can still see the format driver for it in the OPML Editor, and it’s still shipped in Radio, as far as I know.

    Our contract with them didn’t say we couldn’t use RSS or we had to use their format, but had we chosen, at that time, to go with RSS 0.92, it likely would have resulted in a flamewar on the mail lists with them at the center, and reported in News.Com in a horribly enflamed way. That was what was going on in the spring of 2002.

    I didn’t want to involve them in that, it might have confused the issue, and might have caused them to withdraw, thinking the whole thing was a bad idea. The problem is that the collective wisdom of the tech industry was too immature to see the NY Times’s involvement as a positive thing, and would have sacrificed it for one pet idea or another.

    By side-stepping the issue, there were no flames, and we were able to quietly switch the feeds to RSS 2.0, shortly after it was frozen, late in 2002. So that’s the full story. Water under the bridge now, and a happy ending. ;->


  15. My memory says that the thing that made RSS happen is adoption by Slashdot, Slash, Scoop, Drupal and PHP-Nuke. I personally loaded 5000 feeds into Syndic8 and I remember about 35-40% of them were PHP-Nuke sites or similar. A lot of others came from Moreover so perhaps we should give Nick Denton[1] some credit. And then there was NewsIsFree that scraped a 1000 or so sites into RSS when they wouldn’t do it themselves and still does. And of course O’Reilly who had one of the very first public web aggregators. And all of this was well before the NYT came on the scene. I kind of think there were other mainstream media sites with RSS before NYT, but I can’t think who they were. If there were any, there weren’t many of them.

    It’s mostly since the millenium. How quickly we forget the history.

    [1]Nick was giving talks about how simple XML was in about 1999. Certainly right in the middle of dot com mania. I saw him talk at a First Tuesday (remember them?) event at the Fabric nightclub in London. It was definitely before the crash but I’m not sure now how long before.


  16. Julian, everything I say is prefaced by an implicit “imho.”

    And if I were to apply the same reasoning I’d have to say that what made RSS happen was Adam Bosworth asking relentlessly for me to get involved in XML, until I finally relented. ;->

    My point was that RSS, as we know it today, was formed around what the Times did, again, imho.


  17. Dave, thanks for the clarification.

    While we’re on IMHOs, I think I’d set the formation of RSS quite a lot further back, at least with Dan Libby & co. Oddly enough this might actually work with your “RSS came from the publishing industry”. After all, what was MyNetscape other than (online) publishing?


  18. “there’s no doubt something like it would have come along eventually even if we hadn’t promoted it so aggressively in the late 90s and early 00s”

    While that may be so, it’s fairly likely that that hypothetical format would have been significantly worse in several ways, probably proprietary, and have inspired at least one competitor that would have tried to duke it out in the marketplace. Consider a competition between a hypothetical Microsoft SyncML and WS-Syndication, for example (shudders).

    As tumultuous as the syndication wars have been, it could have been a lot worse, and no matter the problems people have with RSS, the fact of the matter is that nothing will beat RSS at it’s own game unless it is (at the very least) better in just about every way, and even then it will take a while.


  19. What was the publishing industry working on when a tech company (Netscape) created RSS? A standard called ICE, that was complex and bulky, but solved their immediate needs. I don’t know if it’s still used today.


  20. Dave, IMFO[1], I really wasn’t arguing or disagreeing. (Much!) 🙂

    These technologies often follow the old hockey stick curve and it’s really hard to point at a single event somewhere on the knee of that curve that defines the moment it really took off. I was really just pointing out a few other things that were happening at the same time. I remember the NYT coming on board but it meant absolutely nothing to me as a Brit because I didn’t read the NYT and didn’t (actually still don’t) see why it’s held in such high regard. And being personally at the geek end of the spectrum, Slashdot (and all the SlashClones) supporting RSS seemed like a bigger deal. Whatever, It’s been really satisfying to see RSS supported by non-Geek sites but there’s still much work to do. There are still way too many websites out there that have a news page but no RSS.

    As an aside, there’s the same old truth coming out here. Standards are nothing without adoption.

    [1]BTW. I’m beginning to prefer IMFO to IMHO! “It’s my opinion but I am right, you know, and you’ll thank me for it in the end. And there’s nothing humble about that at all” he said with a grin!


  21. “They built on the generous openness of the publishing industry, and never said thanks”

    Industries, in general, do not do things to be “generous”. They do them to make money. Of course the two goals may sometimes point in the same direction, as in this case. Commercial publishers like the NYT adopted RSS to drive readers to their websites and increase ad views. If generosity and openness had been their _primary_ goal, they would have put complete articles in their feeds instead of just the first paragraphs, so readers wouldn’t have to keep flipping to the website; but they would have lost money from that. And now that RSS is mainstream, we see these publishers starting to put ads in the feeds themselves. How generous.

    As for the larger point of your post, it makes little sense to me. Both content and technology are necessary for a new medium to take off. You’re right that the NYT’s adoption of RSS helped it gain mainstream recognition (although I think the bloggers and tech sites that came before created the bandwagon for the NYT to jump on.) But none of that would have been possible without software to generate RSS and applications to let users read it. It’s all intertwined, and I think praising one side while disparaging the other is just divisiveness.

    In particular, to say that “RSS came from the publishing industry” is to denigrate the contributions made by Netscape, Ranchero, NewsGator, FeedDemon, Syndic8 and many others, including of course your own UserLand. For what reason? To lash out at Apple’s iPhoto. This seems like a cheap shot against the aforementioned developers.

    [Full disclosure: I work for Apple, though in a separate division from iPhoto, iTunes or .mac.]


  22. Jens, beautiful post and fantastic illustration of the logic of the tech industry.

    Let’s be clear about one thing, you can argue all you want about where RSS came from, but one thing’s for sure — it didn’t come from Apple.

    So why don’t you guys stop screwing with it, and let’s get your act straightened out, and get a system in place whereby you can develop privately without creating all the problems you are creating.

    The last rev, where you decide who can read your RSS while your CEO is on stage claiming anyone can read your stuff is indefensible.

    Until you get that kind of stuff straightened out, I will not debate the fine points with you. Send that message back to your colleagues in Cupertino. I’m ready to help you, and I’ll do it for a few months for free, and I’ll sign an NDA, so now you don’t have an excuse for continuing to ship the schlock that you’ve been shipping.


  23. Dave — I see you’ve decided to become one with the “flamers” you always denigrate. Good show.


  24. Pat, you mentioned ICE, see also NewsML:.


  25. I agree with Dave’s basic premise: RSS came from the publishing industry. One can quibble about who invented what and where and how, but it’s the mindset of the publishing industry, — or to be more general, any non-technical industry — that really made RSS the success that it is today. That (non-technical) mind set is: do the minimum necessary to get the job done.

    The basic problem that most people in the tech industry have is that they overthink and overdesign. RSS is an elegant piece of work (and a success) because it doesn’t attempt to solve the world’s problems, but yet it manages to do what it’s designed to do extremely well — while including the right hooks to allow it to be extended into other related fields.

    A typical tech-industry response to RSS is “it’s just a special case of X”, or “Y can do everything that RSS can do”, where X and Y are some overly complicated do-it-all formats or protocols that take years to develop and hordes of talented developers to implement. That kind of response (a few of which are in the comments above) is exactly why the tech industry *couldn’t* have made RSS a success — tech people would basically have refused to let something so elegantly simple be so important.

    The best thing that we in the tech industry can do is recognize and take to heart exactly *why* RSS is successful and do everything in our power to make sure that we don’t mess with that.

    It’s clear that many in the tech industry have recognized and taken this to heart — the afore-mentioned Netscape, Ranchero, NewsGator, FeedDemon, Syndic8, etc. and they’ve done right by RSS by not messing with it, and instead they contribute to its success, as, of course, do the content publishers.

    Full Disclosure: I work for Microsoft — and on RSS features, for that matter. But this reflects my own opinion.


  26. Sean, you seem to forget the shift in mindset amongst a significant proportion of developers to a more Extreme Programming style, in which “do the minimum necessary to get the job done” is a fairly central idea. The tech industry vs. publishing industry split is itself pretty artificial – online publishing is intimately linked to technology, and in the context of syndication, vice versa.

    When you come to the tech specifics, I’d personally argue that RSS isn’t elegantly simple, if it were then why is it such hard work to determine even the basic things – like whether something is intended as markup or plain text..?

    Certainly, as Dave says, a lot of traditional publishers have got behind syndication, and online publishing has gained a lot of new momentum from this style of content delivery. RSS is technology used by publishers. Bloggers are publishers, sure, but their primary mode is via HTML.

    The recent output from Apple has certainly been disappointing, but as Sam Ruby points out this is in an environment riddled with suboptimal data. There are lessons to be learned from the mistakes of RSS too.


  27. […] Nachdem verschwand, war es nach Winers Ansicht die New York Times in 2002, die den heutigen Siegeszug von RSS in seiner Version 2.0 einleutete.   […]


  28. […] But what’s funny is I just came accross this blog post from Dave Winer that suggests that the NY Times’ adoptation of RSS was what contributed to it becoming popular in the first place. Excerpt: The event that made the difference, that in hindsight was the tipping point for RSS, was the adoption of the format by the New York Times in 2002. The publishing industry, unlike the tech industry, didn’t feel threatened, apparently, by a thriving standard, so after the Times went first, they all just followed, compatibly, without reinventing, without gratuitous incompatiblity, without excuses, they just did it. […]


  29. […] Anyway, the NY Times is not a sideline player in the history of RSS, as I’ve written before, they played a central role, first denying us permission to use their content, then allowing it, and in doing so, providing an example for the rest of the publishing industry, which followed their lead without undermining them, without reinventing the technology, to their credit. […]


  30. […] Jens Alfke, one of Apple’s “inventors” stopped by to explain how there’s no real generosity in the tech business. I can see where he might get that idea, working where he does.   […]


  31. I’m kinda with Jens on the lack of generosity in the Publishing Industry. In my experience, if I needed to find someone who would skin their own mother if they needed a new vellum for broadsheets, I’d turn to the publishing industry. These buggers are cheap, vindictive, arrogant, self-serving, self-interested and greedy.

    So, yes, they fit well with a big company in Cupertino.

    Jens admitted he worked for Apple but NOT in the arenas you have issue with. So why not argue the finer points with someone WILLING to make dialog rather than just having a rant about it. We don’t know if he’s a decision-maker or not, but at least he’s listening. How will you expect others to listen when you trash-talk them BEFORE they listen.

    Apple’s hardly the first company to co-opt a standard but sure, while you’re best mates with Microsoft’s sponsored blogboy, you can shout about how they’re “getting it”.

    RSS came form the tech sector. It’s still in the tech sector. It allows techies to read content and not have to pay for
    a) adverts (but sure, that’s only gotta read the Scobleizer. It’s just one big advert….)
    b) crap content (which we get free, you can see my blog for an example)

    As Jens said, it’s a cheap shot. So chill the **** out. And if you’re ever in Ireland, I’ll buy you a pint and you can call me a *******!


  32. MJ, his name is listed as one of the “inventors” on both patents.

    And he’s dead wrong about generosity and so are you. He received quite a bit from me, and I know what my motivations were and I know how much money I made off it. $0.


  33. This probably isn’t the best forum, but can someone explain what the two patents Apple is applying for are intended to cover?

    My simple, untrained reading of them led me to believe their trying to patent feed aggregation.

    Is there some special case that they’re trying to cover that is novel?


  34. Posted by Anonymous Coward on March 8, 2006 at 6:01 pm

    >Bill Gates has never forgotten that they sued him over the trashcan.

    I remember when Gates held the BASIC in Apple ][s hostage until Apple dropped MacBASIC.


  35. Regarding those two patent applications — it is very important to note that any of us can cause them to be invalidated, since they are still patent _applications_, and not yet issued patents. This is now urgent, since if they pass, it’ll become a multi-million-dollar task. See this post for details.


  36. Posted by George Bailey on March 9, 2006 at 5:23 am

    For what it’s worth, and this is just a side tidbit, Jens is also a generous person. His tireless contributions on Apple’s java mailing list helped me and countless others tremendously. Yes, he was working for Apple, but his participation there was above and beyond any official duties.
    (I’m not saying he’s as generous as DW. After all, who is?)


  37. Posted by b on March 9, 2006 at 5:35 am

    Is it just me, or do the patents read more as if they’re trying to patent the style in which Safari finds feeds, displays them and allows the user to interact with them, with in a regular web browser? I fail to see how it encroaches upon Dave’s inventions of the spec, or the NYT’s usage of the spec?


  38. I think you guys have missed the details of this patent. The patent does not claim any ownership to RSS. It is a patent for some of the features Safari has when it displays RSS Feeds. Most specifically, it is the feature to move a slider and increase or reduce each entry length. Whether or not this should be patentable now is another discussion.

    Here is a demo:


  39. […] Four years ago today UserLand announced we had made a deal with the New York Times that would allow users of our Radio aggregator to receive Times headlines, along with all the other blogs and pubs that were already supporting RSS. Here’s a screen shot showing Times headlines from 2002 in my aggregator. Imho this was the tipping moment for RSS, after this point its growth was a sure thing as the publishing industry followed the leadership of the NYT. I wrote that day, “When we started syndicating Web content in 1997, I set a goal to get the Times headlines flowing though our space. Today, amazingly, that goal is accomplished. To me it’s a reminder that it’s worth setting lofty goals.”  […]


  40. […]  By the way, I recommend a post Winer put at Scripting News Annex on January 20, 2006, headlined ”RSS came from the publishing industry.” […]


  41. […] all kinds of interesting stuff can happen. We’ve been here before. The Times are the unsung heroes of RSS, without them it never would have solidified, with the publishing industry falling in behind […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: