I recently proposed to the IETF Atom Working Group that we might be nearly finished. Some people think that’s a mistake because, as they point out, Atom doesn’t have much more in the way of features than RSS. Here’s why I disagree.

We’re Not Inventing Stuff · I’ve been involved in several different standardization projects across the years, of which one was overwhelmingly successful: XML. And in the process of designing XML, we invented more or less nothing. We took an existing standard, SGML, parts of which worked well and other parts of which were klunky, or expensive, or incomprehensible, or all three. We threw away everything but the pieces that were known to work and added pretty-good Unicode support, i.e. something else that had been proven to work. We tightened up some definitions and added some convenience features and threw away lots and lots and lots of options.

Ever since then, I’ve been convinced that standards organizations shouldn’t try to invent technology. (The W3C, which is jam-packed with super-smart people, has produced some horrible, damaging standards when they’ve tried to get too inventive.) The right role for a standards body is to wait till the implementors have deployed things and worked out the hard bits, then write down the consensus on what works and what doesn’t.

Atom · So what we’ve done in Atom-land is adopted the bits of RSS that get used and ditched the ones that don’t get used. Plus we’ve done some clean-ups and touch-ups here and there: markup-inclusion, date-stamping, namespacing, accessibility, a couple others.

It’s been suggested, for example by Don Park, that you could get the same effect by taking RSS 2.0 (or RSS 1.0, for that matter) and loading in a bunch of namespaced exceptions.

This is partly true (I don’t see how you solve the compulsory-date problem or the namespace problem), but it’s nice for developers to have all the core bits in one document.

There’s another key Atom advantage: it will be a product of the IETF, which means that there are all sorts of boring bureaucratic rules about whether and how it can be revised, and even the most paranoid won’t worry about stability or ownership or control issues.

I know lots of people sneer at that “official standards-body” stuff, but let me tell you, lots of other people don’t. We at Sun Microsystems recently got an official letter from the European Commission asking us to support taking the OpenOffice.org XML format to ISO for ratification. (Our response: “Whatever the customer wants.”) Having an official stamp on the side of protocol means a lot, to many people and organizations, for many different reasons, and some of those reasons are good.

What Not To Do · The worst thing the Atom WG could possibly do would be to spend another year or two trying to invent wonderful new syndication goodies. What on earth would give us the idea that we’re smart enough to predict what features the world is going to want? Our job is to write down what we already know works, to do it as cleanly and clearly as possible in as few pages as possible, then get out of the way.

You don’t think this can change the world? Just watch.

author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
picture of the day
November 11, 2004
· Technology (87 fragments)
· · Atom (91 more)
· · Standards (19 more)
· · Syndication (67 more)

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