Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Future of RSS

Grace Hopper: Creator of the first compiler.
I can't think of many technologies that need to be saved for technology's sake. Saving a technology for historical purposes is a different thing. But that's not the current debate when it comes to RSS and Google's announcement, this past week, to retire Google Reader. Don't forget that Apple had previously retired RSS, last summer, when the company removed its RSS reader feature from Safari which is something I dearly miss.

In the computer science world the debate about giving up one technology for a newer one has been ongoing for decades. It probably began when Grace Hopper started organizing code algorithms into the first compiler. There was a lot of push back about running inefficiently compiled code on computers, in the 1950s, when the best practice was to write lean machine or assembly code. Nowadays, who would write a commercial consumer GUI app in assembly language other than Steve Gibson? Sure, no language is smaller and faster than assembly, but it just requires too many programmer brain cycles to code. As I mentioned last month, a good chunk of coding is debugging; and code that you don't have to write is code that you don't have to debug. But shifting from one technological process to another (whether it's a protocol or a language, etc) will always be met with criticism. People will resist the change and sometimes it's for good reasons; usually due to a deep investment in the technology.

The simple fact is that new technologies advance to either replace shortfalls in older technologies or bring new features. Let's not forget how RSS lead to podcasting. If you think of technology as anything that was invented after you were born, then, if you wait long enough, any technology that doesn't evolve into something new will no longer be technology.

The Future
RSS began as a consumer facing format. But, as I pointed out earlier this week, older technologies are breathed new life when wrapped with a web front end. That's effectively what Twitter did to RSS. Granted, Twitter is a centralized platform, but it's definitely become more popular than RSS. That might be because it's a push format (as opposed to RSS's polling process) or it might be because consumers can easily see all of their feeds on one website or Twitter client. Regardless of the reasons, there's no denying that Twitter has been in the news much more than RSS these past few years.

The beauty of computer science and software engineering is that it's very easy to build on previous things. More so than in the real world. Flipboard has taken the basic list format of Twitter and RSS one step further as it presents it in a newspaper format. Newspapers printed on paper may be dying as a medium, but it's still a great format to read and discover news since unrelated articles are cleanly presented on a single page.

What seems obvious to me is that RSS will not go away; instead, it will (and already is) being built upon. In the near future, it will no longer be a consumer facing technology anymore than DOS or a Unix shell is today, but RSS will be the glue to tie together publisher and consumer. Could you seriously see a completely different feed standard being developed in the near future, from scratch? Baby steps to stand on the shoulders of giants.

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