RSS on Fire

There’s an old rule in journalism that trends can be spotted when you hear/see the same item happening three times in a row over a short period. If that’s the case, the trifecta yesterday was:

Let’s review why those announcements herald the arrival of RSS into the mainstream.

Yahoo! and RSS

As Jeremy Zawodny said,

it does something […]–something that Yahoo is in a unique position to do: bring RSS to the masses.

Why is this significant? Well, quite simply, while geeks like myself and readers of this blog know, RSS is still something for early adopters. Every time a large player gets into that field, the concept gains a little more traction. With the arrival of RSS into the Yahoo! personal page, the format becomes a major new delivery channel for content creators. With this, TNL.net can now figures prominently next to Reuters feed, being given the same kind of weight.

It represents a major shift in the way Yahoo! distributes content. In the late 1990s, the only way one could get onto that page was to strike a relationship with Yahoo! This meant spending times with both your and yahoo’s lawyers and resulted in fewer spots being available on that personal page (For the sake of disclosure, I was involved in one of those deals, providing content from Internet.com on the Yahoo! pages). Looking at this situation, Netscape developed a new format to push content into their personal page. That format was the genesis for what we now know as RSS. So Yahoo! has now taken a strategy that was initially developed by Netscape as a way to compete with Yahoo! Oh, the irony!

With Yahoo! making this move, one can only wonder as to when other portal players will do. Will they follow suit? Will AOL soon support RSS? What about MSN? If that’s the case, this would be a seismic change in the level of support for RSS and would get most major companies to start thinking about distributing content over this channel.

Bloglines, Newsgator and distribution

More geeky but also of high significance are the announcements that Bloglines is offering web services which can be integrated in a number of other newsreaders, and a similar announcement from Newsgator. A few weeks ago, I wrote about capacity planning and RSS. This is a major issue in the world of syndication these days and Bloglines is the first service to attempt to offer an open solution. Similarly, Newsgator’s announcement represents the fact that such approach is something that more people are thinking of, not just the works of a single company. The reason these technical announcements are particularly significant is that they represent a potential shift in terms of how people think of RSS.

The distribution to a super POP for RSS can represent a step in the right direction in terms of distributing syndication feeds. One could envision feeds being distributed to entities like Bloglines as a way to alleviate and redistribute traffic. With more and more messaging moving over RSS, this could be an interesting approach in terms of making RSS scale.

The fact that Newsgator also takes that approach shows that this is something that is gaining support. I do see the Bloglines effort as having more of an impact, however, because it is an open one, whereas Newsgator is creating more of a walled garden by partnering strategically instead of offering hooks into the service to anyone who wants to use it.

What we are seeing here is the emergence of a new kind of content aggregators and distributors. They are the new pipeline, the new glue for what could become a new way to distribute content. And I don’t just mean the kind of light text-based content which currently makes up the bulk of syndication feeds. What I can envision is these kind of efforts becoming similar to bittorrent, offering audio, video, and other types of rich content in a distributed fashion. At the end of the day, they could become potential competitors with Akamai, as they push more content closer to the edge without overloading the servers offering that content. They can potentially become the new proxies of syndication.

However, this can also become a point of concern. As more and more people rely on such points of presence, they have to created a trusted relationships with the providers. What happens if the service goes down? What if they decide that a feed shouldn’t be redistributed ? What happens if they decided to add advertising to every item in a feed? (I’m not saying that they would think in such a way but trying to highlight a potential scenario)? What would happen if a legal entity asked them to stop distributing a feed? There are a number of interesting issues arising out of the concept of redistribution. While in the past, Bloglines could only affect blogline readers (and Newsgator could only affect Newsgator users), they now sit at a major intersection where they become a critical part of the architecture.

This represents issues but also opportunities. While they do aggregate content, alleviating load from the server of content creators, they also sit at a point where they can get more information about readers. For example, a simple question thrown on one of those services could allow to create better demographic profiles of syndicated feed users. One could see them aggregate that data and start reselling it to content creators who are interested in knowing more about theirs readers. In the future, one could also start relying on those networks as a way to target readers (for example, target particular entries to particular types). And finally, those networks could finally offer the holy grail of syndication: monetization. Since they would be sitting in a space where they can control a walled garden, they could start offering “premium” services, subscription to feeds (or baskets of feeds) for a price, going into a revenue sharing model with the content creators.

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