How RSS can bust through

Fred Wilson says “RSS has to become brain-dead simple to use.”

I’m pretty sure we can do it, but it would require the companies to give up hope of locking users into their software, into their extensions, their mistakes.

How RSS can bust through

There are two barriers to brain-dead simplicity.

1. It must be easy to find relevant feeds. Too much hunt and peck is involved. The reason My.Yahoo and iTunes have been successful is that they centralize a lot of the discovery, they make it easy to find stuff you might be interested in. But not easy enough to qualify for brain-dead simplicity. That’s why we’re working on reading lists, trying to drive adoption of the new practice by the industry. If, when you get started using an aggregator, it gives you some interesting feeds, and then as time goes by gives you more, without you having to do anything, that’s going to make the finding of relevant feeds a passive thing. Until you’re ready to take over, you can ride the bus without learning to drive. I think this is going to get us another 15 or 20 percent of web users into the RSS world.

2. Subscription has to be centralized. When Microsoft invited me in, in April of last year, to hear their RSS strategy, I think they expected me to object to their centralizing subscription for Windows users; they were surprised when I didn’t. I had already come to the conclusion that subscription had to be handled in the browser, because that’s where the impulse to subscribe happens. We knew this back in 2001, when we implemented the Radio coffee mug that made subscription a one-click operation. The problem of course is that our method only worked for Radio. Any of these techniques is going to work with only one destination, that’s why there has to be just one destination, why subscription needs to be centralized.

Microsoft didn’t go far enough. They only solved the problem for Windows. In 2006 that’s not even a very large part of the world, because a large number of people who subscribe, do it through web-based services like Bloglines or My.Yahoo, and more will over time. The Microsoft approach doesn’t work for them. If I subscribe to something using their desktop service, it only registers with software that runs on my desktop. It doesn’t inform My.Yahoo, for example. Now, Microsoft argues that Yahoo can install a toolbar that runs on the desktop, but come on, we don’t want a proliferation new stuff loading into the OS. That’s how we got in all the malware trouble. We don’t need to open that kind of Pandora’s Box. What we need is a centralized subscription public service. It’s not a technological problem, it’s a political and economic problem. In order for RSS to grow to the next level, tech companies have to stop seeking lock-in on subscriptions.

I’ve suggested to Yahoo that they run this service. Of the top three net companies (the others being Google and Microsoft) they’re the least controversial, imho. All that would be required is that they support OPML export for My.Yahoo subscription lists, and commit to keeping it open for perpetuity. The last part is the hard part of course. Now perhaps we could get a university involved, they have politics too, but people seem to trust universities more than they trust for-profit businesses. Something to think about.

Now once we have a single place for subscriptions, which is a real tall order, then all kinds of services can be built off that. It’s like the domain name system again, and perhaps that’s the way to implement it. We’re lucky that RSS is still a fairly close-knit community, and there is leadership that works, somewhat. The small tech companies and at least two of the large ones (Apple, Google) don’t participate, they blaze their own trails, but the publishing industry and most of the large tech companies are still in the mode of cooperating. So now may be a time it can work. And reading lists buy us some time.

Fred Wilson provides the emphatic statement. We can get someting very cool working, and let’s add a dose of reality — we have to work together in order for it to happen.

43 responses to this post.

  1. […] Dave Winer has an interesting post on how RSS can break through. I think the thesis is wrong. It already HAS broken through. I asked the audience at LIFT last week (not all bloggers, either) how many use RSS and 80% of the hands went up. Maybe the question should be “how do we get the other 20%?” […]


  2. Scoble: “I asked the audience at LIFT last week (not all bloggers, either) how many use RSS and 80% of the hands went up.”

    Not in my world, but a long shot.


  3. by a longshot


  4. […] Dave Winer “How RSS can bust through”  […]


  5. Just posted a few thoughts over my weblog.



  6. […] Dave Winer says he knows what RSS needs to break through; Robert Scoble says it already has. I’m with Dave on this one… I’m not sure Robert’s wise to take a gathering of web 2.0-literate blog-savvy cognoscenti as a representative sample. (Frankly, I’m surprised that only 80% of the attendees at a conference like LIFT were hooked into RSS.) […]


  7. […] A post over my OPML blog: Just a few toughts from reading Dave Winer’s essay. […]


  8. Getting RSS To Go Mainstream

    There are lies, damn lies, and RSS adoption statistics. In an insightful post this morning Dave Winer, written in response to an item by VC Fred Wilson, paints a clear and elegant picture of how to make RSS use, and hence adoption, “


  9. Dave,
    You want to get a university involved well maybe I can help (I work at the San Diego SuperComputer Center on UCSDs campus as a Software Engineer and Researcher) and get around the politics:)

    Let’s talk.



  10. Great ideas.

    A corollary to your first point, about relevant feeds being easy to find..

    Most of the feeds I care about are searches for keyword combinations, not particular publishers. Getting keyword search feeds not only requires a lot of hunting and pecking, but on multiple engines. That’s because, for any keyword combination, there are lots of nonduplicated results in feeds from Feedster, Blogpulse, Google Blogsearch, Icerocket, Pubsub and Technorati. Also huge differences in currency. What shows up in five minutes in one feed comes tomorrow in another. In some cases the same results come new day after day.

    Killing those feeds when one’s interest has expired is no bargain, either. Unsubscribing in my aggregator doesn’t unsubscibe me from my watchlist in the source engine. Not that I’m aware of, anyway. Do the APIs at the source engines support this? I have no idea. (And I suppose I should… but should ordinary civilians?)

    All of which, I suppose, also argues for a central subscription service.

    Would this service have an open API that would keep the NetNewsWires and NewsGators in business, providing added values around the edges?


  11. […] Dave Winer wrote about how RSS can bust through, to which Scoble responded with the typical technology view: Dave Winer has an interesting post on how RSS can break through. I think the thesis is wrong. It already HAS broken through. I asked the audience at LIFT last week (not all bloggers, either) how many use RSS and 80% of the hands went up. Maybe the question should be “how do we get the other 20%?” […]


  12. […] O pai do RSS, Dave Winner, tem um artigo interessante sobre como conquistar mais utilizadores para a tecnologia de RSS. […]


  13. Posted by HullaBaloo on February 5, 2006 at 11:11 am

    RSS direction? With the latest announcement of E-mail “postage” charges will RSS be “monetized”? Personally I believe it would slow the great momentum. Will the internet become a “Class” of those with money get “Access” and those without money become “Information” poor. I feel the access charges to the web are MORE than sufficient to have paid for the feed access already. After all the purpose of RSS was to “entice” site visitation which if I’m not mistaken is a form of “perpetual” advertisiing. I also believe IE is late getting “with it” and is probably in the middle of “design on the fly” development. Again a knee-jerk reaction to the publlics demand for service.


  14. Dave, I TOTALLY agree with your post, from the need to the preferred service provider for this (Yahoo).

    I still have a desktop RSS reader but it is only for development and music blogs. Why? Because those are things I only read at home.

    For my “main”, crucial, daily (or hourly) reads, I use Bloglines. That allows me to read from my home, from my office, from my mobile, etc, and not have to deal with the problem of keeping multiple RSS clients in sync as far as new/deleted subs and feeds, and (most importantly) new/read status for posts.

    I know there are ways to do this with desktop clients (the one I use at home even offers this feature with several options, including syncing/updating status at Bloglines) but it isn’t effortless like Bloglines is.

    Yahoo has been doing some very smart things lately and I am a big fan of their efforts in the mobile tech/service area. Thanks to their efforts, Yahoo IM has become the only IM service I am connected to 24/7 no matter where I am. If I could deal with all my RSS subs via my Yahoo ID, that would be great.

    MS could do the same with passport, of course, but I have almost no problems using Yahoo on my mobile while passport fails around 50% of the time. MS has a habit of being a year or 2 late with things, Yahoo seems to consistantly impress me lately and almost never disappoint.

    If none of the Big 3 (or maybe even Bloglines?) will step to the plate for this, Dave, I hope you do it yourself. Or browbeat a nearby developer into doing it.😉


  15. […] How RSS Can Break Through from Dave Winer – Scobe’s disagrees with an 80 / 20 elevator hands up. Yup I’m with Dave on this one. […]


  16. I’m not clear on their SSE strategy on Vista, which is an extension to RSS as pertains to syncing. They seem to imply that they’ll be using this to sync calendar entries, but why not use it to sync OPML entries? The other bizarre thought that I had was why no one has use session variables or HTTP POST data to make RSS a bit more controllable (dynamic?) from the aggregator/client side. It seems as if SSE is perhaps a step in this direction as Microsoft has seemed to indirectly imply that SOAP or XMLHttpRequest data will be used to control what data will pass over SSE which seems kind of a neat idea. The other tangent this could go in is that you could setup an OPML syncing service using SSE e.g. I could sync Dave’s reading list to and aggregator if the SSE extensions were applied to OPML. Maybe this is already being done, however, SSE seems to me (an outsider) to be moving in a very Outlook-centric direction.


  17. Posted by Jason Hawryluk on February 5, 2006 at 12:45 pm

    How is My.Yahoo OPML export going to provide “brain-dead simplicity” ? Have you seen their subscription form? People see that, and go well, I didn’t really “need” this anyway. It has to be accessible. It has to be non proprietary. It has to be everywhere.

    I would hate to see people have to go through the same process as indexing/registering (old school) your site for a search engine to put a feed out.

    Installing a plug-in or software to read RSS is not going to help either. The average user doesn’t even know that they could right click a link and save the file, or image.

    Dave; by centralizing it, you’ll limit it.


  18. Perhaps even you aren’t going far enough. Perhaps it is content that needs to be centralized. Let’s be honest, we bloggers post on hundreds of different sites. We chose the site to host our musings based on a myriad of different reasons of varying import to each of us. Of course, each site is at least a little different to suit our tastes. Well guess what. Most people won’t bother to visit a bunch of dfferent sites just to read our commentary. Sorry.

    Of course centralized content would never fly. We’d see it as impinging on our freedom of choice, and that’s my point. By what divine right would. say, Yahoo become the authoritative catalog of RSS feeds. Which angel do we assign to watchdog Yahoo’s impartiality? Do you get it yet? Why isn’t there just one search engine? Life would be so much easier. Just one tiny flaw there, how do we kmow our search results weren’t censored? Deja vue China, anyone? Competition is messy. but it keeps everyone involved honest.


  19. […] The meme today about how RSS may or may not “break through” is the perfect example of the new media vanguard not having a clue about real media. (Dave Winer opines on how RSS can break through, Scoble says it already has, Dion Hinchcliffe thinks it can but it has to be easier to use) Reality Check: People who use RSS readers to any degree will always be “edge cases” simply because your average person doesn’t consume enough media or care enough about their media to go to the trouble of building their own reading lists or even consuming somebody else’s reading list. What they care about is finding a small number of sources, and usually it’s one or two ‘big picture’ sources plus a couple of specific-interest sources, who they can trust and who reflect their general outlook on life. […]


  20. […] Dave Winer discusses what’s needed to drive RSS adoption – to “break through” – though Scoble thinks that break through has alredy happened. […]


  21. Posted by Rob Evans on February 5, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    RSS is abstract concept. view content that other people have created in the form that suits you best. A lot of people still think that they have to visit the websites to get the information they require and until those people learn that they don’t have to do that, RSS won’t reach it’s tipping point for a while yet.


  22. RSS as a concept (er, “web feeds”) busted through to the mainstream many many years ago with PointCast, when grandmas and secretaries “got it” and knew how to use it. RSS as a technology, albeit it very simple, is downright pathetic. Where is threaded comment support? Where is trackback chaining? RSS has the opportunity to make the Semantic Web digestable for every day users like grandma, but it just too bad that elitist geeks and greedy corporations try to keep it on top of some pedastal. RSS ain’t going nowhere until it combines the best of e-mail, forums, newsgroups, and blogs!


  23. […] Dave’s WordPress Blog » How RSS can bust through (tags: web rss) […]


  24. RSS hasn’t broken through and its neither of the above reasons. Here is the main reason.


    When RSS gets a cooler name and can be hidden better, I think people will start to use it more often. When I dont have to explain what it is, how she can get an RSS reader or how she has to subscribe to different feeds from sites and such, then it will be ready. It should be easier to use. When that day happens, we can really expect it to take off away from the clutches of the uber geeks.

    And I say uber geeks because I go to school with a bunch of comp sci majors and many of them dont know what XML, RSS or any of those things are.


  25. […] Dave’s WordPress Blog » How RSS can bust through » Fred Wilson says RSS has to become brain-dead simple to use I’m pretty sure we can do it, but it would require the companies to give up hope of locking users into their software, into their extensions, their mistakes. […]


  26. Great post. My issue is that the subscription needs to be DEAD simple. I don’t argue the other points its just that this one is a pet peeve.

    I’ve been down the standards and cooperation route but I’m a bit skeptical. Maybe I’m too old but I just don’t think the GYMs of the world want to work together. They are just too many difficult/confusing technical issues.

    Safari does a damn good job of handling RSS., I really need to get an IE box here soon to play with IE 7…



  27. […] Dave Winer agrees and gives a couple of pointers in “How RSS can bust through“: […]


  28. […] Dave’s WordPress Blog » How RSS can bust through Fred Wilson says “RSS has to become brain-dead simple to use.” I’m pretty sure we can do it, but it would require the companies to give up hope of locking users into their software, into their extensions, their mistakes. (tags: dave+winer rss Microsoft) Explore posts in the same categories: Daily Links […]


  29. I could not agree more with your post, Mr. Winer. Imho the biggest problem with RSS though is that everybody is pushing the standard name, not it’s usefulness. In fact that’s why we’ve created – a very unique social network aggregator that hides all this from the end user – we believe that they should not be concerned with XML, RSS or any other technical terms. Please let me know whether you would like to try it out and I would gladly send you an invitation for the beta.

    Yours thankfully,
    Danilo Medeiros


  30. […] Dave’s WordPress Blog » How RSS can bust through Otro excelente ensayo de Dave Winer sobre como conseguir que mas gente use RSS… (tags: RSS) […]


  31. […] Steve Rubel thinks this is the starting gun for RSS based marketing, as folks will have to refactor the efficiencies of email. Fred Wilson has a great round up of links plus adds that RSS is still not ready for prime time—too techy for mainstream uptake. Dave Winer posts his thoughts about how to make RSS simpler & more effective. […]


  32. […] Engage a couple of the "A-List" bloggers (Michael Arrington, Robert Scoble, Dave Winer, Om Malik, Steve Gillmor, Cory Doctorow, Richard MacManus,  Stowe Boyd, and others) by sending them a link to your new product or service. Tell them what problem it solves and why it is cool. When they blog, people listen. When their stories hit Tech Memeorandum, Digg, TailRank, and other services the story explodes across thousands of blogs within hours. […]


  33. […] A couple of days ago as the MicroPersuasion Blog talked about AOL charging a fee to ensure email delivery to their clients and Dave Winer and Fred Wilson talked about making RSS simple enough to become mainstream–I pondered if this was an answer to a major problem I run into with Financial Service clients: […]


  34. RSS is still unknown territory for the average user. The average user doesn’t want the trouble of setting up RSS feeds (think feed:// vs. http://). Make feeds user-friendly by standardising, intergrate an RSS reader into the next MSIE, and maybe RSS will ‘bust through’.


  35. Posted by MYoung on February 7, 2006 at 6:23 am

    For my simple subscription needs, Apple’s Safari browser suits the task. It’s a no-brainer to subscribe and have the feed address added to a list. Sure dedicated newsreaders might offer more functionality, but for many users Safari should be adequate. Why wait for MS Vista when Apple already has what they propose to introduce 2 or three years later?


  36. […] Read Tris Hussey and Steve Rubel on the topic of the end of cost-effective email marketing. Read Dave Winer on why RSS is hard to use and Stowe Boyd on Reads, Not Feeds. […]


  37. I could not agree more. The lack of auto discovery of feeds and addition to the default RSS reader is the most important thing and would speed up the adoption of RSS.


  38. […] Good news…I’m not the only one thinking about what the RSS experience will be like for the masses. Dave Winer, one of the pioneers of RSS, has some interesting thoughts on what it will take to get regular folks on the RSS bandwagon. […]


  39. […] RSS feeds, even if centralized RSS does happen, can’t replace the e-mails I actually want to get from Amazon, Netflix, and E-bay: the ones that confirm product orders or shipments. Netflix is unlikely to pay the stamp rate just to let me know that they’ve shipped my next DVD – but I would still appreciate the e-mail. […]


  40. I think the RSS spec *is* simple enough, and while I don’t want to see it become more complex, it does need some additions. The one addition I blogged about today is the RSS equivalent of the website robots.txt, or of DRM . Read my blog post here:

    I also write about the next generation of aggregation – in that context (IMO) you can see why we need to extend the spec to include ongoing rights given by the author.


  41. […] From Dave’s blog: 1. It must be easy to find relevant feeds. Too much hunt and peck is involved. The reason My.Yahoo and iTunes have been successful is that they centralize a lot of the discovery, they make it easy to find stuff you might be interested in. But not easy enough to qualify for brain-dead simplicity. Posted by James |    […]


  42. […] Courtesy of Robert Scoble is a post by Dave Winer on how RSS can bust through. It’s a couple of weeks old, but still and interesting post. […]


  43. Posted by notmesharles on June 3, 2010 at 2:03 am

    would definitely help to have the list centralised.
    The list also needs statistics on how many articles per week get added 2 the feed each hour/day.
    Just had to clear out some rss feeds which were posting far to many stories and making it hard to track news items.


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