Sam Ruby has, over the last week or so, been quietly at the center of a lot of intense discussion with the goals of clarifying what a “log entry” is, and now building a roadmap around it. Now they’re asking people to put up their hands and say whether they support this or not. I support it strongly, with (a typically lengthy list of) caveats, amplifications and digressions.
There are moments when if people compromise something great can happen and if they don't the opportunity passes.
Why Are We Doing This? · Someone coming in from outside might well say “This is all very nice, but why are they doing this? We already have RSS, don’t we?” In fact, I was emailing with Brent Simmons and his remark to me was along the lines of “er, OK, I guess it’s good to get this written down.” You could practically see his raised eyebrows between the lines of the email. Here’s why the time is now:
Too Many Versions · There are multiple 0.9* versions, the RSS 1.0 crowd, the plurality (maybe majority) favorite RSS 2.0, and the confusion is intense enough that Mark Pilgrim and Aaron Swartz create joke versions with “funny” numbers and yes, the joke’s kind of funny.
Speaking personally, when I first put ongoing on the air I got several emails, one or two of them quite aggressive, asking why I was generating RSS 2.0 instead of the “technically superior” 1.0 version. I at least knew enough about the issues to have an opinion; someone who’s not an insider would probably have suffered severe angst over this. And I bet that if I’d started with 1.0 instead, I would have received mirror-image email from the other side. This sucks.
Political Realities · Too many versions, you say. Well, why don’t we get together and agree on how to merge them? Except for, the interested parties have a track record of inability to get along and work things out and make progress. To the extent that in some circles “RSS” has become a synonym for “Reliably Spiteful Squabbling.” Kofi Annan and the Dalai Lama might be able to achieve consensus, particularly if they could get Don Rumsfield to credibly threaten peacemaking backup with the 3rd infantry, but life’s too short, I’m tired of it, unless we can get consensus without further argument by this time next week, it may be more cost-effective to start over.
Spec Quality · I think that as of now RSS 2.0 (IMHO the best of the RSS’s out there) is significantly underspecified. The two things that bother me the most are the lack of guidance on what to do with markup (naked or escaped) in various fields, and no standard way to do relative URIs.
So I think the spec needs some work anyhow, and given the politics referenced above, the fresh-start idea is attractive.
We Understand the Problem · The time to write it all down and standardize it is not when you’re first struggling to invent the technology. We now have aggregators and publishing systems and search engines and you-name-it, and I think the community collectively understands pretty well what you need, what you don’t need, and what a good syntax looks like.
So, now’s the time.
Sam Ruby · Although Sam Ruby is carefully scattering sand over his tracks, I get the impression that he’s the one who’s responsible for this flurry of activity. I like this for the following reasons:
I called up Sam to talk to him about this and said “This might be worth doing, but do you have any idea how much time it could take?” Sam said “I got sign-off from my boss to work on it full-time.” I can’t emphasize how important that is, having someone focused on a project and not fitting it in between their other work. One of the main reasons XML worked out so well is that Jon Bosak’s boss turned him loose to work on it, and I’d just quit my job, and James Clark has never had a job, and Michael Sperberg-McQueen routed around his boss for a few months, so we had four people grinding away pretty well full-time.
Sam works for IBM, which is fine by me, decause I think IBM is well-positioned to make a ton of money from applications that have RSS in their infrastructure But, I don’t think IBM gives a rat’s ass what the format looks like as long as it works and can’t be hijacked by Microsoft. So to use business-speak, Sam’s corporate motives are well-aligned with the interests of the stakeholders.
Sam seems like a smart and energetic guy who understands the issues.
Dave Winer · 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. However, just looking around, I observe that there are many people and organizations who seem unable to maintain a good working relationship with Dave.
I regularly get pissed-off at Dave but I really truly do think he’s trying to Do The Right Thing; but there are many people out there who can't get past being pissed off. This is what life is like.
There’s an uncannny echo here, for me. The thing that came before XML was called SGML. SGML was largely invented, and its landscape dominated, by a burly, bearded, brilliant New Yorker, Charles Goldfarb, who is currently making a well-deserved killing bringing out the Definitive XML Series of books for Prentice-Hall. Charles is loquacious, persistent, smart, loud-voiced, and nearly always gets his way.
There were a lot of people out there (still are, I guess) whom Charles drives completely nuts and just won’t work with him. Which is one of the reasons that, when we invented XML, we felt the need to give it a new name and a new acronym and so on. Mind you, Charles, who as I said is no dummy, climbed on board the XML bandwagon about fifteen seconds after it got rolling and was a major help in getting the thing finished and delivered.
Anyhow, like I said, there’s an echo in here.
What To Call It? · Call me an idealistic dreamer, but I’d like to go on calling it RSS; a nice simple easy-to-remember TLA that even has a minor little beach-head in the popular consciousness.
But in the (entirely possible) event that we can’t get Kofi and His Holiness and Don R. to help us sort this out, it might be as well to make a clean break.
If we have to do this, call it Pie. Because the new thing should be as Easy as Pie, and it’s not an acronym so we don’t have to sweat about what it stands for, and the soundbite merchants in the media will love it, and nobody will forget it once they’ve heard it even once.
Someone pointed out that “Pie” might not look up all that well in Google. Which is OK, but RSS isn’t the greatest either, since it’s the name of the (kind of scary) political movement behind the ruling party in the world’s second-largest country. Someone who needs to find out will.
Take It To a Standards Org? · I think that in the long run it would be good if RSS or Pie or whatever weren’t “An XXX Specification”, where XXX is any of Userland or IBM or Microsoft or Textuality or, well, you get the idea. I think that the reasons for this are so obvious that I’m not going to waste your time walking through them.
The usual way to deal with this is to take it to a “Standards Organization” and make it into an ISO Standard or W3C Recommendation or IETF Standards-Track RFC, or whatever. Of course, the downside of doing this is the huge, crushing, time-gobbling amount of work that’s involved.
While I am not a full-time standards warrior I have some experience in this, and hence some recommendations:
Don’t go to a second-tier standards organization. If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right and get a stamp on the side that means something.
Don’t go to ISO. It’s just too time-consuming. Of course, if you are defining things like the meter or the kilogram or a safe electrical amperage, it’s appropriate to take as long as you need to get it right. But this is a different order of magnitude.
Don’t go to W3C, which is just too popular, these days, for its own good. 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.
Going to IETF might not be entirely crazy. Anyone can write an IETF “Internet Draft”, and given the legendary “rough consensus and running code” ethos, even one or two people can push things through the process there.
And occasionally people from the IETF in-crowd will get interested in something like this that really seems to have momentum and pitch in to lend a hand.
Four Points · It’s easy enough to summarize. What I care about is that we build something that’s:
100% vendor neutral,
implemented by everybody,
freely extensible by anybody, and
cleanly and thoroughly specified.
If that’s called RSS or something different, it it’s led by the current people or new people, if it’s got a standards-org stamp on it or not, I just don’t care that much. But I’ll do what I can to help.