Microsoft exec defends RSS rebranding

A Microsoft Network (MSN) executive is defending Microsoft’s rebranding of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) into “Web feeds” after a flurry of Microsoft bloggers accused the software giant of trying to recast the Web-site syndication technology in its own image.

In a recent post on his Web log “ Torres Talking,” Mike Torres, MSN Spaces lead program manager, made a clear distinction between the branding of the RSS technology and the underlying technology itself. He also said that Microsoft is adding its own functionality to RSS in the version the company is implementing in Internet Explorer (IE) 7. Because of this, its renaming of RSS is not a sign the company is trying to remake the technology for its own purposes but rather a way to make a distinction between RSS and a feature of IE.

RSS is primarily used by Web loggers and Web-based news publishers to keep subscribers informed when new Web log entries or news articles have been posted to Web sites. Microsoft is adding RSS functionality to the next version of Windows, Windows Vista, primarily through the IE 7 version of its Web browser. Both Windows Vista and IE 7 betas are available now.

“Just because one team at Microsoft (in this case, the IE team) is grappling with the naming of a single feature in a single product (that does a lot more than just RSS), it doesn’t automatically mean we are trying to ‘reinvent the technology,’ Torres wrote in a Web log posting on Aug. 9.

Torres was responding to a post the same day by Dave Winer in his Web log Scripting News that accused big software companies such as Microsoft and Google of messing with technology they did not invent, a move he called “childish and self-defeating.”

“Like it or not Microsoft, the technology is called RSS. If you try to change that, for whatever reason, you will get routed around,” wrote Winer, president of Userland Software and a software guru who is credited with pioneering RSS and other Web standards. “Like it or not Google, the format is RSS 2.0. … Go all the way, and just give it up, and accept the gift, the way it was presented, without trying to edit, revise, fold, spindle or mutilate.”

The debate raged on after Torres’ response to Winer. In an Aug. 10 entry on his Web log Read/Write Web, freelance analyst and Web writer Richard McManus wrote that he, too, believed that Microsoft and Google should not mess with the brand because “it’s bigger than both of them.”

However, he admitted that the companies will probably drive the adoption of “feeds” because as the two “biggest Internet companies around,” they are extremely influential. And anything that drives RSS into the mainstream is a good thing, McManus wrote.

This and other spirited debate in popular Microsoft-watching Web logs such as Robert Scobel’s “Scobleizer” prompted Torres’ most recent post Sunday, where he referenced a host of other companies and technologies that call RSS by another name.

In his Web log Torres mentioned Firefox, which calls RSS feeds “Live Bookmarks,” and Newsgator Online and Bloglines, which both call them “feeds,” in his defense of Microsoft’s choice to rebrand RSS.

“Looks like millions upon millions of people are using RSS, the technology, but not RSS, the brand,” Torres wrote. “And this was long before IE7 ‘Web feeds’ were a twinkle in Jim Allchin’s eye,” he wrote, referring to the group vice president of platforms at Microsoft.

The debate initially sparked when Jane Kim, program manager for RSS in Internet Explorer, posted an entry on Aug. 2 to IEBlog that said Microsoft is calling RSS feeds “Web feeds” in Beta 1 but is open to changing the name to something else. A week later, Google announced that it was adding RSS functionality to Google News, but was calling the RSS functionality “feeds” and not referring to them by the standard name.

Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at Jupiter Research, said there is no harm in rebranding RSS into a term that is more palatable for the average Web user to digest, comparing it to more generally accepted terms for scientific designations.

“In entomology, there’s a classification of insects called Lepidoptera, but most people know them as butterflies,” he said. “There’s always going to be a language that is specific to some industry or group, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same thing that everyone uses.”

It also does not mean that changing the name of a widely recognized standard is a threat to the standard itself, he added.

Indeed, Mike Shaver, founding member of the Mozilla project and technology strategist for the Mozilla Foundation, defended his own group’s choice to call RSS feeds “Live Bookmarks” in Firefox by saying the group wanted a better, more mainstream name to emphasize what RSS feeds actually do for a user.

“We wanted to emphasize the utility of the feature (dynamic bookmark folders fetched from a server) rather than the underlying formats (RSS, Atom, etc.),” Shaver wrote in an e-mail to the IDG News Service.

Moreover, he said that RSS is a “pretty geeky/technical name for consumer-facing interfaces,” and encouraged more rebranding of the term.

Still, such a debate begs the question of whether RSS might be better overseen by a generally accepted standards consortium such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which oversees another integral Web standard HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), to preserve the purity of RSS itself.

Originally developed at Netscape Communications Corp. in the late 1990s, RSS is currently in the hands of Harvard University, which released it in July 2003 under a Creative Commons open-source license.

However, even those like Winer who question Microsoft’s and other companies’ motives for changing the branding of RSS think the technology should stay where it is.

“In the end I think they’ll do the right thing [with the technology],” Winer said of Microsoft’s RSS rebranding moves in an e-mail to the IDG News Service. “I also don’t think we need a standards body. RSS happened outside of the standards bodies for good reasons.”

Jupiter’s Wilcox agreed. “As long as there’s a standard everyone can agree on, it doesn’t matter much who the steward is,” he said.

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