nullstream weblog - RSS Golden Hammer

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RSS Golden Hammer


July 9, 2005 11:44 AM PST

RSS Golden HammerAlthough the year is only half over, I hereby announce that RSS has won the Nullstream Golden Hammer of the year award. This goes out to the technology that is the most overhyped, and proclaims to solve every major problem out there. "When you have a golden hammer, everything starts looking like a nail".

Furrygoat's Law mentioned it early on. We've seen a a growing number of RSS related stories over the past few months. Even the announcment of a $100 million VC fund for RSS technologies wasn't quite enough to hand out the award. No, it was this post about Seattle Public Library RSS feeds that kind of sums it up.

On first glance, it doesn't sound like a bad idea. But wait a minute - we already have a great, non-polling way to be notified when a book is available or overdue it's called email. Are you really going to have 20 RSS feeds that you're constantly polling to see when your books are overdue? The Delicious Monster integration is a decent idea, but this is at best just "Web services", and really it's just "the Internets". My Web API for the library app:

Input: barcode&pin=your PIN

DUE: January 1, 2009 or
OVERDUE: January 1, 2001 or
RETURNED: January 1, 2005 or

See - no crazy XML formatting or difficult parsing. A toddler could write a HTTP client to read and parse this data. The difficulty of Web services is determining the semantic meaning of the data submitted and the data returned. In this case, we have four simple return codes (DUE, OVERDUE, RETURNED, UNKNOWN). XML or RSS isn't going to help us determine what DUE means, or that a date should follow DUE, OVERDUE or RETURNED. It's no problem for a human to read it and understand, but what if you wanted to automatically update you electronic calendar with a reminder? A standards body could mandate what these things mean, if everyone could agree, but keeping it simple and easy to parse is the quickest way to go.

This simple Web service model is actually called REST, and great examples are available for sites like and DynDNS.

Two borderline cases for RSS that I've actually tried are the GMail inbox feed and the Netflix shipping notices. The main thing I've noticed is: the GMail POP connector is much better for getting notifications and actually reading email. And Netflix always sends me an email of sent or received movies from my queue several hours before the RSS feed is updated. So despite these feeds piquing my interest, they're basically worthless.

RSS is a specific set of XML tags. That's all. It makes articles easier to format for devices than HTML does. It's OK for notifications in some ways, but really no better than Microsoft's Live Bookmarks (would poll a website for updates, and highlight the bookmark if new content was present). Email is far better in most cases. It's cool for stuff like Podcasts or TV Torrents, but is an XML schema that holds a title, a date, a description and a filename really worthy of all this hype?

Comments (1)

John, July 9, 2005 12:59 PM:

Ha ha. Very nice. I totally agree. Um, why do I need RSS notifications of stuff that can just be emailed to me? People are going mental with it. It has its uses but please everybody, just calm down.

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