Google mulls RSS support

The company is considering renewing support for the popular Web publishing format, CNET News.com has learned, the latest twist in a standards war that could change how people read the news.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
6 min read
Google is considering renewing support for the popular RSS Web publishing format in some of its services, CNET News.com has learned, marking the latest twist in a burgeoning standards war over technology that could change how people read the news.


What's new:
Google is considering renewing support for the popular RSS Web publishing format in some services. Along with rival Atom, RSS is a leading candidate to form the basis of an industry standard for a new style of Web publishing that lets readers easily compile news headlines on the fly.

Bottom line:
Were Google to support both RSS and Atom equally, it might help ease growing pains for this growing Web publishing movement. It would also restore Google to the status of a neutral party in the midst of a bitter fight between backers of RSS and Atom.

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RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, lets online publishers automatically send Web content to subscribers, giving readers a powerful tool to compile news headlines on the fly from several sources at once. Next to Atom, which launched as a challenger last year, RSS has become a leading candidate to form the basis of an industry standard for an entirely new style of Web publishing.

In January, Google seemingly chose sides, bypassing RSS support for most subscribers of its Blogger publishing tool in favor of rival Atom. But now, there are signs that Google may be poised for a change of heart, as support has grown inside the company to restore equal footing to both formats.

According to an internal Google e-mail seen by CNET News.com, the company has been considering the change and last month assigned at least one staffer to write a memo summarizing technical details relating to RSS. The request came amid a broader discussion touching on extending RSS support for new Blogger subscribers and Google Groups, which supports Atom but not RSS in a test version of the service.

"I did ask (a Google product manager) to develop a summary...about RSS feeds, including the ways they are produced and consumed, which platforms/devices they run on, and information on the various formats (RSS 1.0, 2.0, Atom)," Jonathan Rosenberg, Google's vice president of product management, wrote on May 22. The message was part of a thread addressed to Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, CEO Eric Schmidt and others.

As of June 4, it appeared no decision had yet been made on the issue. A Google representative declined to comment.

Were Google to support both RSS and Atom equally, it might help ease growing pains for a swiftly rising movement of Web publishing. It would also restore Google to the status of a neutral party in the midst of a bitter fight between backers of RSS and Atom, who have been divided since last summer when critics of RSS banded together to create the alternative format. Since then, many blog sites and individuals have rallied behind Atom.

Google is central to the debate because of its mounting influence in the online community and within Web publishing circles as the owner of Blogger. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company, which is gearing up for a $2.7 billion initial public offering later this year, recently redesigned Blogger with simplified features to help newbie Web surfers publish regular accounts of their lives online, a move to appeal to wider audiences. Google also has plans to introduce a raft of community services, including e-mail discussion groups (Google Groups 2), free Web-based e-mail and search personalization tools, which could eventually tap the syndication format.

Feeds meet needs?
A slew of feed readers or news aggregators has emerged to take advantage of the technology and spur consumer demand. Newsgator, for example, lets people subscribe to various Web logs and news sites and have the feeds delivered to their e-mail via a plug-in for Microsoft Outlook, at a cost of $29. Topix.net lets people parse news into 150,000 different categories, even down to a ZIP code, and create their own information site. Pluck recently released a set of browser add-ons for Microsoft's Internet Explorer with an RSS reader. Many news readers support both RSS and Atom, although some support only one or the other.

Despite the fissure, RSS has been gaining allegiance among many computer makers and online publishers. In recent weeks, Time magazine, Reuters, Variety.com and Smartmoney.com have started supporting the format, syndicating their headlines to news aggregators and individuals. In January, Yahoo started testing RSS feeds, allowing visitors for the first time to create personalized MyYahoo pages with automatic news feeds from third parties of their choice. Yahoo also supports Atom feeds. Computer companies including Microsoft, Apple Computer and Sun Microsystems also support RSS.

Two major versions of RSS currently exist. They are known as RDF Site Summary and Rich Site Summary, respectively.

The technology is becoming more important because it essentially allows Web surfers to get information how and when they want it, without surfing to Web sites. People can set up a Web page and aggregate headlines from multiple sites, and click only on those that interest them. Publishers are embracing the technology to drive more traffic to their sites, amidst media overdrive on the Web. Many publishers and advertisers are even evaluating ways to make money from syndicating news feeds with ads or sponsorships. For example, publishers could seed advertisements into RSS and Atom news feeds.

Yet without interoperability between the news readers, consumers could eventually hit a brick wall. If a publisher's syndicated news feeds are available only in one format, then the consumer using another would have to install an updated news reader.

"From a layman's perspective, if this is going to move out of the geek space, these two warring parties need to come together and realize it's the applications that will determine the standard," said Charlene Li, principal analyst for Forrester Research. "It shouldn't be polarized into a Betamax vs. VHS discussion."

RSS was developed as a Web scripting format in the late '90s by a team of Netscape engineers and eventually came under the domain of Dave Winer's blog software company, Userland, when Netscape's RSS team disbanded. Last year, Winer transferred the format to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, where he is a fellow. RSS is also now available for use under a "creative commons" license, which frees it from commercial copyright claims.

Sam Ruby, an IBM software engineer, launched Atom last summer as a way of bypassing what he and other critics called Winer's de facto control over RSS. Industry watchers say the format is more robust than RSS, with more tagging capabilities in syndication, and is more promising because it's on a fast track to becoming an open standard. Atom backers have proceeded with plans to bring their technology under the auspices of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Detractors of RSS argue that the format is closed because it is essentially governed by one man, Winer.

In May, the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) announced a proposal for a new IETF Atom publishing format and working group under the IETF. Ruby and others have said that the working group would draw on the experience of RSS to help create a single, interoperable format. Ruby could not immediately be reached for comment.

Winer himself has lobbied for a merger of the rival formats, in part because of concern that Google's dominance would influence a greater split in the Web publishing industry. In a worst-case scenario, Winer described how in the future, people might need to download two different news reader applications to compile headlines from publications supporting competing formats.

Winer said that he's asked the company repeatedly to get behind RSS and quell confusion over competing formats, with no answer.

The "RSS 2.0 format is by far the most widely used format. There was a time when it looked like things would coalesce, but then things started to fragment, largely due to Google," Winer said. "RSS deserves Google's respect, and it's not getting it."

CNET News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.