RSS: don’t bury a living technology

People have been too quick to use the death of Google Reader to proclaim the death of RSS. Helpful technologies don't die - they just become invisible.

Much of the pleasure of being in technology is enjoying the new – of being amongst the first to experience the future as it comes into being. There’s a reason we call the conference NEXT – because what’s next is exciting.

Sometimes, though, that excitement becomes unhealthy. We become so obsessed with what’s next that we stop valuing that which has come before – and that can be foolish. There’s the old saying that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it – and that’s certainly a danger. But that’s not really what I’m thinking about. Sometimes, those of us in the tech business are too quick to dismiss the past as dead, and forget how valuable it can be in building our future.

Yesterday’s kerfuffle about the death of Google Reader has been taken by some to mark the death of RSS. The who business of subscribing to feeds is so very 2006, people suggest. We have social media now. We don’t need RSS. That in itself is a fallacy – people use the two very differently. More importantly, RSS is still a huge part of the plumbing of the web – and plumbing doesn’t suddenly vanish because we box it away out of sight:

If you subscribe to any podcasts, you use RSS. Flipboard and Twitter are RSS readers, even if it’s not obvious and they do other things besides.

Lots of apps on the various app stores use RSS in at least some way. They just don’t tell you — because why should they?

RSS is used for mundane things too, like Mac app updates (for non-App-Store apps) and Xcode documentation.

And those people you follow on Twitter who post interesting links? They often get those links from their RSS reader.

One way or another, directly or indirectly, you use RSS. Without RSS all we’d have is pictures of cats and breakfast.

That’s developer Brent Simmons, the original author of beloved Mac RSS Reader NetNewsWire, explaining how pervasive this “terminal” technology actually is. It’s everywhere, and it’s at work delivering cool things to you without you ever having to think about it. That makes for a great technology.

However, he goes on to make an even more profound point, to my mind, that because it’s a standard, and one not controlled by any one company, it’s flexible. Twitter can – and does – control the number of users developers can have, how the API works, how tweets should be displayed, and force ads into your product. RSS is an open standard, and nobody is in a position of authority to force that on you.

Google, almost by accident, became the 800lb gorilla in the RSS space. Their Reader became the predominant way of consuming feeds. Now they’ve walked away from the market, there’s a genuine chance that people will rediscover the technology – and how useful it is as plumbing.

Marco Arment expressed this sentiment as soon as the Reader news broke:

Now, we’ll be forced to fill the hole that Reader will leave behind, and there’s no immediately obvious alternative. We’re finally likely to see substantial innovation and competition in RSS desktop apps and sync platforms for the first time in almost a decade.

In the end, I hope he’s right – that the end of Google Reader will be the birth of a revived market for RSS-based products, and Simmons articulated a similar sentiment:

The end of Google Reader takes away that one dominant player. The market for RSS readers is no longer frozen — and it will interest more developers than it has in recent years.

The consolidation of the net into the hands of a handful of big companies is something that people who love seeing the future – and who love startups – should be wary of. Open standards go a long way to allow new ideas to thrive and bloom, without having to pay court to existing market leaders.

Photo by Time White, and used under a Creative Commons licence