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Problems with RSS

RSS is great. It’s one of those things that was invented by someone somewhere that no-one really knows but has nevertheless turned into this big monster that is liberally sprinkled around the web.

It’s a fundamentally simple concept: publish a little bit of data about a website and let people access the data ‘snippets’ using some sort of reader software (web- or desktop-based). From that small piece of data, people can see at a glance whether their favourite website(s) has(ve) been updated recently. If there’s some new content, they can go to the website in a flurry of excited activity if what they know about the new content seems to interest them. All good.

Not really.

Something like this has so much potential to be really really good, but to me it just doesn’t seem well thought out. It’s as if XML was invented and the world suddenly went nuts. Suddenly people could throw data round in a flat file that could be read by anything that could read XML (which everything can, because so much XML is being thrown around) and this would stop all wars and put Oracle out of business. Unfortunately, an XML document is pretty much just a text file with bells and whistles and, whilst useful, doesn’t necessarily re-invent the internet. The whole how-useful-is-XML debate is a big one, and I’m not going to argue either way about it here. Suffice to say, I’m mentioning this because it was invented, and people (as they do) went a bit mad. RSS was part of the product of this.

So, like I said, great idea in principle - stop everyone having to check their favourite websites every hour for some breaking news. This saves on people’s time and bandwidth, both of which equal money. But I said it wasn’t well thought out. Here’s why.

RSS: What? - No-one really know what RSS stands for. I always thought it was Really Simple Syndication, but never really knew what that meant. Wikipedia however seems to think that it also means Rich Site Summary, RDF Site Summary and Real-time Simple Syndication. Reading about a bit, it seems that these all refer to different standards created by different people, which is fair enough but if you just say ‘RSS’, you could be talking about anything. This leads me nicely to my next point:

Standards - I’m quite a big advocate of standards, simply for the reason that it makes life easy for everyone. It means when I write some code for an application, I can guarantee that it will work the same way for all users. That’s what the word ‘standard’ means. Most protocols out there have a defined standard, and the lower-level you go, the more critical it becomes. High level protocols such as HTTP, HTML and CSS both have published standards, but so does IP (RFC0849). HTML and CSS are interesting ones but, again, that’s a different debate. RSS comes in 4 different published versions (from what I can see); 0.9,0.91,1.0 and 2.0. Some of these are more common than others, but most sites don’t tend to specify what type of RSS feed they publish. It’s just ‘RSS’. Ultimately this means that as a developer writing an RSS client, I have to build in 4 different specifications. Add in Atom and other types of syndication protocols and it starts to get silly. It could be much much worse, I admit, but why not just have one standard. Everything would then be easier. That said, life could get a lot worse with Microsoft’s new Simple List Extensions. Microsoft are basically creating a new ‘standard’ by adding their own new ‘tags’ to RSS. Microsoft, please stop doing this. If you think you can do something better, go do it better in the first place.

Clients - When I found out about RSS, I though “great, so I need an RSS reader”. Back then, the market for RSS readers was all a bit of a melee and there wasn’t really anything that was any good. Still today, it seems that there isn’t any clear market leader in RSS readers. There’s nothing that 80% of RSS geeks can point a new user to and say “here, use this”. I certainly found nothing that I thought was good software, so I wrote my own, which I still use. I would let other people have it, but frankly that wouldn’t help the situation. I’m actually not sure what would help, I’m mostly just ranting here.

Authentication - Because the whole standards thing wasn’t thought out very well, they left all sorts of useful bits out of RSS feeds. For example, it’s all very well publishing a feed for anyone to read your blog, but what if you want to publish a feed to a select group of people, and actively keep other people out? Answer - you can’t. Not really. Not properly. RSS doesn’t support authentication in any way. It could be argued that it doesn’t need to seeing as HTTP already supports its own authentication. The only downsides of that are the username/password goes in the URL and therefore travels over the wire in plain-text, and no-one really uses HTTP authentication for a user-friendly experience. The first problem is solved by using SSL, but this isn’t necessarily convenient for the host and not that many clients actually support SSL when fetching RSS feeds. The second problem has come about just because most site designers recognised that it’s a very bad idea to store passwords in plaintext anywhere on either the server or the client. A lot of authentication systems make use of issuing time-limited tokens to the client on a successful login which is then stored in a cookie. Any subsequent requests for restricted data will see the server ask the client for that token again and see if it matches what it issued to that user. Of course I could just sniff your token, but when it expires, I still don’t know your password. In any case, I digress. No-one’s yet built a RSS client that supports the storing of cookies in order to get at data that might be restricted. This makes life difficult and could have been solved by just a little bit of forethought.

Anyway, that’s what I think. Next, AJAX!