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Atom nearly done, but can it compete with RSS?

July 26th, 2007 by

AtomWith the announcement that the Atom 1.0 specification is essentially done, it now moves into the process of becoming a full-fledged IETF specification. Atom has been a promising alternative to RSS 2.0, but has only a fraction of the market share of syndicated feeds. Can it really compete?

Pros and Controversies

For those who are only marginally comfortable with XML, Atom is more intimidating. At the same time, it is more precise. The bungling of HTML markup (double-encoding, anyone?), confusion over enclosures, and the typical flailing we see with RSS can be addressed directly. Atom holds the promise that such problems, when they arise, can be addressed in a standards-compliant way.

The RSS 2.0 spec is supposed to be frozen, so the problems you have now in RSS will always be there… maybe. The RSS Advisory Board, divorced from inventor Dave Winer, continues to make micro-changes (against his wishes) to the RSS spec in an attempt to solve such problems. (Here’s our humorous Plumbing Fable on that soap opera.) The vitriol on this topic makes American politics look rather tame. [Editorial opinion: RSS still needs an enema.]

The Standard is the Key

US GovernmentThe real secret to the success of Atom could very well be official stamp of approval by the IETF. This is nothing to be scoffed at: There are thousands of powerhouse U.S. corporations and defense contractors who are required by their own policy to use a official standard whenever possible in their software. As soon as Atom becomes an official IETF-blessed product, RSS as a de-facto standard won’t count anymore.

I have a coworker who is documenting my employer’s software practices for a government checklist, and one of the criteria is whether or not we are standards-compliant. If we’re using RSS instead of Atom, it would be easy to get dinged by somebody who is paying attention.

We know that the U.S. government is in fact paying attention to the RSS vs. Atom debate. Last fall, I wrote about the decision made by the U.S. Intelligence Community to go with Atom 1.0 instead of RSS. (The article also distills why RSS doesn’t work for their purposes.) They set a precedent that will make it way into policy along with the “only official standards” mandate in the defense software industry.

Google, Feedburner, and Atom: A devilish conspiracy?GoogMuscle and FeedBurner

To further muddy the waters, Google’s recent acquisition of Feedburner has the geekosphere wondering whether some GoogMuscle might get flexed to push Atom over RSS.

RSS 2.0 inventor Dave Winer is already mustering the troops to demonize (or at least discredit) FeedBurner. That camp is convinced of a vast corporate conspiracy to control RSS… and perhaps destroy it. Google has a track record of promoting Atom in the past, so it is at least possible that FeedBurner might make Atom its default format sometime in the future.

Conspiracy or not, if RSS can’t stand the test of time – frozen as it is – Atom may eventually win.  Giant corporate backers like Google who make policy decisions could very well be the deciding factor. As Richard MacManus rightly notes, “Google has the potential to be the kingmaker in the Syndication Wars very soon.” (Richard does a great recap of said Wars to date.)

Beta and VHSBeta was Better. Long Live VHS.

All of these issues, from corporate/government standards to Google adoption is only a matter of potential, however. In the meantime, Rogers Cadenhead says Atom’s marketshare is about 16%, and appears to be declining. Standards-track or not, there is no telling if that will ever turn around. Will Atom become the Betamax to RSS’s VHS? I guess we’ll know in a couple of years.

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