RSS rears its head at Sun

Building on a grassroots momentum that is starting to develop legs within the enterprise, Sun Microsystems Inc. is beginning to forge a relationship with Really Simple Syndication or RDF Site Summary (RSS).

The Santa Clara, Calif. computer maker recently announced that it will be developing RSS for not only internal communications within its company but also to deliver external information among developers, customers and partners. It will also be integrating a set of tools for its Java Desktop System and to integrate the client experience.

“There is a whole class of communications in particular that people use e-mail for that is more applicable to RSS…and a whole range of news or support items that are much better aggregated and delivered to the people who want to have access to them,” said John Fowler, software chief technology officer at Sun.

RSS is an XML-based format, often called a feed, that describes content generated from a Web site generally in the form of news, headline syndication or any type of published content and links to the actual content are made available to other Web sites. After the publishing site creates an RSS file of its content, other Web sites may use the headline feed and the content can be read with a standard Web browser or any specialized RSS viewer.

“We believe that when you think things are going to be good they are both sufficiently simple and sufficiently versatile to be used for different types of things,” said Tim Bray, technical director of Sun’s software group. “We didn’t know all the things Java would be useful for and RSS will go through some of these evolutions as well. We are perfectly willing to do some exploration to see if we could really make this useful for people.”

Eventually, Bray said that he would like to have an RSS feed to his bank account, credit card and his stock market portfolio.

As the rise in blogging, or writing Web logs, started to take off in recent years, it became inconvenient for people to actually surf through those messages in a traditional browser. So, RSS is an interesting alternative for users to aggregate the activities of blogs and read them at their own pleasure, Fowler added.

Developed in the late ’90s, RSS was used by Netscape to compete with Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer channels, which could push data to users’ Windows 98 desktops.

Michael Gartenberg, vice-president and research director for the Personal Technology and Access and Custom Research groups at Jupiter Research in New York, said the maturation of the RSS process is obvious, to the point that vendors such as Sun and Microsoft are interested and recognize the significance of the file format. In this case, however, it’s not those companies that are driving the standard.

“The fact that the major vendors are starting to get on board is really interesting, but this has really been a grassroots technology that has picked up a life of its own,” he explained.

Fowler said Sun’s first few steps would be to develop a highly integrated set of tools for JDS and also get proactively involved in driving open standards for RSS, something that Gartenberg says must happen.

“This technology is mature, what you’re having right now is a number of branches of the RSS community that are somewhat fragmenting,” Gartenberg explained. “It’s important that all these groups get together and focus on one specification that works because if they don’t one of the larger vendors will come into the fray and set the standard.”

Right now there are several flavours of RSS such as Google Inc.’s blogger service, which is called Atom, and various versions of the original RSS standard, including a possible variant by Microsoft that might be compatible with Longhorn, Gartenberg said.

Recently Dave Winer, a co-author of the original RSS format, who said RSS is the newest thing that has been around for five years, proposed a merger with Atom and told IT World Canada that he is urging developers to come up with a backwards-compatible format.

Gartenberg says if the universe is a smart place, a merger will happen.

“If all of these splinter groups could agree to one format to drive it forward would be the best thing that could happen to RSS.” He said.

Sun’s Bray said the whole idea of syndication is what RSS and Atom are all about. “It’s time for us to stop being a cottage industry and start becoming a boring bureaucratic standard,” Bray added.

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