Why RSS is succeeding where CDF failed

I’m the first to say that this meme of “RSS in 2004 equals push in 1996” is full of crap. However, a recent (last month. I’m a little behind, OK?) post from Don Box points out some funny prior art in the form of CDF, Channel Definition Format, an XML based syndication format with a <Channel> element containing a bunch of <item> elements. CDF was Microsoft’s response to the “push” bubble, which featured such wonderful business models as PointCast (remember them? screensavers with headlines, clogging your network in real time! and it’s free!).

Do you remember CDF? Only Internet Explorer (which does something with the format, though I’m not clear what) and Don (and Mark Pilgrim) do. So why is RSS succeeding where CDF failed, in spite of infights, name calling, confusing branding, incompatible version forks, and big hairy egos? ITWorld doesn’t know, and Wired’s best guess is that it survives despite itself because it’s useful.

I think that RSS succeeds where push and Pointcast (and CDF) failed because the value proposition is even stronger than it was seven years ago. The rise of weblogs means that there is a ton of interesting stuff out there that’s impossible to read if one only relies on the browser and bookmarks. The rest of the content of the web has gotten smarter, too, and most of the major publishers have automated back end systems that can easily put out information in other formats than Web-ready HTML. The Web is much more XML friendly than it was in 1997; every current operating system and browser groks XML at least at a fundamental level.

Finally, RSS isn’t owned by a big company. To the extent that it has owners, they are all the content authors, aggregator developers, and readers who have invested time and energy in making it work for them. That’s a community.