Working together for standards The Web Standards Project

Last week, Google reignited the syndication wars by relaunching Blogger with support for the Atom syndication format and API in the free service, but RSS support only in the paid Blogger Pro. A few days later, the W3C fanned the flames by offering Atom a home. Some, including Microsoft über-blogger Robert Scoble, have asked the WaSP to help firefight.

While the WaSP members are still considering an official response, it looks to me like this boils down to two would-be standards in a pissing contest, and I didn’t join WaSP to referee the urination olympics. I joined because I was tired of pissing contests, tired of having browser makers pee on my head and tell me it was raining.

WaSP, for me, is about saying “you helped make the rules, now play by ‘em. No buggy, incomplete implementations and no proprietary gewgaws that prevent me from authoring to a standard and having my document work in every app that claims to support that standard. No peeing in my pool.”

Same goes for content authors: you wanna use proprietary gewgaws, fine. Do that. Just don’t take a standardized technology like HTML and cobble it into some unholy mess that just happens to work on your favorite browser and nowhere else. No peeing in the pool.

In the case of the syndication wars, it isn’t at all clear to me whose pool is getting peed in. It looks to me neither of the contestants is a standard yet—and there’s the rub.

In the end, it doesn’t matter one iota if there are one, two or ten formats available. Network effects will sort the winners from the losers and eventually people will settle on one—or a few, if there’s a need (GIF and JPEG, for example, coexist because they do different things).

What matters is that whatever formats get used are unencumbered by licensing issues and are maintained by an org that can reasonably claim to approximate an industry consensus within its committees.

The first matters because licensing costs and intellectual property issues make usage prohibitive for hobbyists and raise barriers to accessing the information encoded in those formats.

The second matters because it reduces the chance the format will be driven by the needs of one company or developer at the expense of others and help prevent the format from being hijacked for stupid reasons (like, say, driving an upgrade cycle).

Thus far, neither RSS nor Atom qualify, though both are moving in that direction: Atom is pursuing adoption by the IETF, and as mentioned above has been asked to join the big W3C tent. Dave Winer has transferred the RSS 2.0 specification to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, who have in turn released it under Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons License. Dave has also established the RSS Advisory Board to oversee and promote the development of the specification—an interesting approach, but one that appears to lack a mechanism for broad representation of those with an interest in the spec.

When Atom actually gets its working group in the W3C or the IETF, or when RSS gets the sort of stewardship that can reasonably claim to have attained a broad consensus, then I’ll feel differently. Until then, speaking only for myself, I say keep your pissing contest outta my pool.

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