A few weeks ago I wrote - a little unfairly, perhaps - that blogs were "little more than personal Web pages". Of course, one of the reasons some blogs are interesting is that they can be much more than that, providing an alternative kind of online journalism that is often better informed and far more topical than traditional publications. Moreover, the usefulness of such blogs is increased enormously when news items are syndicated - made available as a feed that can be accessed on a regular basis and displayed automatically on a subscriber's machine. By aggregating many syndicated feeds it is possible to create a powerful form of constantly-updated, personalised information.
Like the basic blog format, syndication is not new. Its roots go back to one of the most discredited ideas of the early dot-com days: push technology. Instead of visiting a Web site, information was sent - pushed - to clients as a "Webcast". Unfortunately, the result was something horribly close to television, complete with intrusive advertising. Worse, the model employed by push pioneers like Pointcast meant that corporate intranets were soon clogged with the constant and redundant transmissions of multimedia content.
Both Microsoft and its main rival at the time, Netscape, flirted with the push idea, albeit in a technically more sensible form using XML. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4 supported Channel Definition Format (CDF), while Netscape created RDF Site Summary, or RSS. As push fell out of fashion, Netscape lost interest in RSS, but it was picked up by UserLand, which had been working on something similar. Although some progress was made in defining an official standard, today's RSS 2.0 is largely the work of Dave Winer at UserLand.
RSS is now thriving , with major news outlets such as the BBC, Reuters and The New York Times all providing RSS feeds, and many RSS newsreaders and aggregators available. But the close control exerted by Winer over the standard has drawn some criticism. This has been addressed to some extent by the transfer of ownership of RSS 2.0 to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, where Winer is a fellow, the creation of an advisory board, and a change in the licence employed.
More problematic, though, is the road map for RSS, which states that the standard is "for all practical purposes, frozen at version 2.0.1". This is a reflection of the fact that Winer believes that a fixed, basic format is better than a shifting, more complex one: according to him, RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication".
Others disagree, including many leading lights in the blog world. They have banded together to work on a new syndication standard originally called "Echo", now "Atom", that explicitly aims to move beyond RSS. Atom is open source, and there is a working group that hopes to submit Atom to the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) as a proposed standard (a draft is already available, as is a range of software supporting Atom).
Happily, this two-track approach is unlikely to lead to yet another formats war: Atom has widespread support from companies, including Blogger, which is owned by Google, and from top names of the blogosphere - even Dave Winer, although he naturally wants RSS 2.0 to be supported too. Moreover, it is relatively straightforward to convert between the two XML applications - FeedBurner will even do it for you.
Atom is important because it offers a way to take the syndication idea much further than its current incarnation. A hint of what might be possible can be found in the idea of combining syndication with BitTorrent - a kind of P2P version of FTP that can serve up large files to many users whatever the bandwidth of the originating site - to provide efficient, automatic downloads. Maybe Pointcast's time has finally come.
Glyn Moody welcomes your comments.