Battle of the blog

A power struggle erupts over a technology widely used to distribute Web logs, pitting blog pioneer Dave Winer against opponents at IBM, Google and others clamoring for a different format.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
9 min read
Battle of the blog
Dispute exposes bitter power struggle behind Web logs

By Paul Festa
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
August 4, 2003, 4:00 AM PT

As commercial interests have increasingly dominated the Internet, Web logs have come to represent a bastion of individual expression and pure democracy for millions of bloggers.

So it should come as little surprise that a technology behind blogs--online chronicles of personal, creative and organizational life--has manifested the kind of bitter fight for control that is inevitable in any truly democratic institution.

The conflict centers on something called Really Simple Syndication (RSS), a technology widely used to syndicate blogs and other Web content. The dispute pits Harvard Law School fellow Dave Winer, the blogging pioneer who is the key gatekeeper of RSS, against advocates of a different format. The most notable of these advocates are Blogger owner Google and Sam Ruby, an influential IBM developer who is now shepherding an RSS alternative through its early stages of development.

Winer's opponents are seeking a new format that would clarify RSS ambiguities, consolidate its multiple versions, expand its capabilities, and fall under the auspices of a traditional standards organization. Calls to revise RSS itself fell on deaf ears when Winer decided to freeze its technological core, preventing substantial changes to the heart of the format.

The dispute offers a glimpse into the byzantine and highly politicized world of industry standards, where individuals without legal authority over a protocol may nonetheless exercise control over it and where, consequently, personal attacks can become the norm. Despite the apparent pettiness of developers' sniping, their arguments over digital minutia may carry enormous consequences, and corporate interests remain poised to capitalize on the conflicts if they are not resolved.

"Dave Winer has done a tremendous amount of work on RSS and invented important parts of it and deserves a huge amount of credit for getting us as far as we have," Tim Bray, a member of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) influential Technical Architecture Group, wrote in a June 23 Web log entry. (Bray is also a co-creator of Extensible Markup Language (XML), a (W3C)-recommended language on which RSS is based.) "However, just looking around, I observe that there are many people and organizations who seem unable to maintain a good working relationship with Dave."

The posting, which has served as a flashpoint for those on both sides of the controversy, has understandably drawn Winer's wrath.

"Why has my personality become the issue? They're using that to try to get me to shut up," Winer said in an interview. "I think most people don't have a difficult time working with me. It's unfair. It's untrue. And it's unbecoming of someone of (Bray's) stature to make statements like that. You can't create things with flames--you can only tear things down with flames. If they want to create things, they can't do it with the dislike of one person."

One analyst saw in the bickering the potential for fragmentation that would slow the adoption of Web logs by mainstream users. "Enterprises don't care about what RSS version to use or whether to use Echo. They want syndication of content," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg.

"If these developers don't come to terms soon, they risk losing a lot of the gains made over the last few years as Microsoft or IBM or someone bigger than all of them will come in with a protocol that serves their needs and that will become the standard," Gartenberg said. "Fragmentation is bad for standards, and now is the time for them to come together on something."

It is doubtful that the original developers of RSS ever anticipated such vociferous rhetoric over their utilitarian technology. Netscape Communications created RSS as a way to let various applications read Web documents and identify attributes such as title, author and subject matter.

Since then, bloggers have used the technology to automate the distribution of content that changes regularly, notifying distant reader applications of a new posting and its characteristics. News sites such as those run by the BBC and CNET News.com also have used the technology.

After Netscape lost interest in maintaining RSS, it passed the format to UserLand Software, Winer's Palo Alto, Calif.-based company, which produces software titles for publishing blogs and other Web content.

Considered one of the first and most influential bloggers, Winer left UserLand this year for a position at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. RSS followed him there this month when the Berkman Center made the format available under a "creative commons" license that frees it from commercial copyright claims. The transfer of RSS to Harvard from UserLand won praise from participants in the RSS debate, Bray among them.

Life without RSS?
Now, people and organizations with an interest in blogging are rallying around an alternative to RSS, motivated in large part by Winer's decision to freeze the format's core but also by his stewardship of the technology in general. After closing off the core of the format to further development, opponents say, Winer handed down seemingly arbitrary judgments on competitors' extensions, also known as "namespaces."

"Dave Winer has on a number of occasions pointed out namespaces and said that they break interoperability," said Ruby, the RSS alternative advocate, who is a senior technical staff member at IBM in Raleigh, N.C., and a director of the Apache Software Foundation. "His RSS spec points to a list of namespaces, and it's extremely selective. It includes certain ones and not others. It's extremely confusing. I don't know anyone who knows what is and is not acceptable."

Demand for more features in a syndication format, along with frustration at Winer's governance of RSS, inspired Ruby and others to begin work on a comprehensive alternative to Winer's format. They say their technology will define not only syndication, but publishing, editing and archiving functions as well.

The alternative--still in search of a name after being known variously as "Atom," "Echo" and "Pie"--would closely follow RSS technically but have different specifications. Ruby and other proponents say it would most likely wind up under the auspices of a standards organization, probably the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

The degree to which the proposed alternative mirrors the fundamental structure of RSS is an indication of how much the debate has become a referendum on Winer's ownership of the format, rather than on the technology itself. While Winer relinquished his CEO duties at UserLand last summer, he retains his seat on its board of directors and remains the principal shareholder.

Web log war gets personal
Winer and his Harvard employers object to the increasingly personal tenor of the debate. Harvard insists that the transfer of the format to its Berkman Center from UserLand should put to rest any questions about Winer's control.

"Dave took a very positive step by saying, 'Get me out of this as a person. Make it clear to people that I'm not standing in the way of progress because of who I am,'" said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center, describing the controversy as "internecine warfare."

"People are getting dug in on personalities and not focusing on the substance of the issues," Palfrey added. "This isn't about individuals; it's about whether one technology is better than another. And we need to make it a discussion about that and not if someone likes one man or not."

Critics reject that argument, saying the format's transfer to Harvard and the creation of an RSS advisory board--which includes Winer--merely obscures his de facto control of the format.

"RSS has always been controlled by a single vendor," said Mark Pilgrim, a Web developer and professional trainer in Apex, N.C., who works for Washington-based software development and consulting firm MassLight and on the Web Standards Project. "RSS is not an open format."

Winer has said he would support Ruby's alternative, should it be widely adopted, but contends that large companies like IBM and Google have an interest in making specifications more complicated so that individuals and smaller companies cannot afford to implement them.

"The reason the core is frozen is to keep the developers from screwing with it. RSS is simple," Winer said. "They want to make it complicated so they can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement it for you. Someone like IBM does consulting for publishing systems. If RSS were to take off, they would lose those contracts. It's not that Sam Ruby isn't a nice guy. It's just in IBM's interest to make this complex."

Ruby countered that his version of the technology would remain simple and in fact would simplify the syndication format by removing multiple versions and clarifying the rules for adding extensions. In addition, Ruby's project proposes to do more than just replace the multiple existing versions of RSS. It aims to create a standard that would unify competing blog formats, the application programming interfaces that govern the blog editing and publishing process.

But with respect to the basic syndication mechanism, Ruby said, the RSS alternative is going to look a lot like the original.

"We've kept to the core and just avoided all the ambiguities," he said. "The only thing that it won't share with RSS is the ambiguity and the bitterness that has surrounded it. People have implemented this in a couple of hours. None of this is rocket science or something that people are going to have to hire big corporations to consult on."

The wrangling over RSS has led many to call for the transfer of the syndication format to a formal standards body, where disputes over technologies' direction and development can be settled by working groups that represent a broad array of parties.

Standards stalemate
Yet even if Winer and his detractors agree on that direction, the issue will face another contentious question: Which standards group should get the project?

"Don't go to W3C, which is just too popular these days for its own good," Bray wrote in his June 23 blog. "If we could convince W3C to launch a working group (which would take months) there would instantly be 75 or more companies who wanted to join it, because RSS is hot stuff. It's not entirely impossible they could do a good job, but it is entirely possible they could really screw it up."

A better destination for the alternative format, Ruby and Bray suggested, is the IETF, which is less restrictive in letting people post "request for comment" drafts and which admits individual members rather than dues-paying corporate and organizational representatives.

The W3C defended its ability to handle the technology, using the XML programming language as an example.

"The place where Tim (and other XML co-authors) ended up going with the idea that became XML was in fact W3C," wrote W3C representative Janet Daly in an e-mail interview. "While there was certainly some political drama between the participants, I don't think any of those folks would claim that XML was ruined by the experience, or that the result was anything but an open standard that could be used by any of the participants, their employers, or anyone else interested in the spec."

Winer sounded a skeptical note on the prospects for any standards body-approved syndication or blogging format, reiterating his warning that the resulting complexity would take the technology out of the hands of smaller companies and individuals. In the long run, he said, RSS would prevail with the momentum it has achieved in the marketplace.

"What do they think is going to happen when they bring it to the standards body?" Winer asked. "All the theorizing and machinations are pretty much irrelevant, because the market is developing. There are lots of products out there, and whatever the developers want to do with freezing, unfreezing, submitting and so forth is not going to change anything. The market is growing."

No one doubts Winer's contention that the market for a Web content syndication format is expanding. But Ruby and his followers have ample evidence to suggest that the growing market is increasingly willing to follow them away from Winer's RSS. Companies and individuals that have already thrown their support behind Ruby's effort include Google and its Blogger unit; Six Apart, makers of the blogging tool Movable Type; Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig; and Bray. 

Editors: Mike Yamamoto, Desiree Everts, Evan Hansen, Zoë Barton
Design: Pam Dore
Production: Mike Markovich