If ever there was a web technology that has spectacularly failed to reach its full potential it's RSS (Really Simple Syndication) - the code that is the basis of feeding data, news and music from one website to another. And the reason for its failure? Well, for consumers, it's not really that simple.
RSS is the data format that enables news feeds and podcasts, it enables structured data to be reliably passed (syndicated) from one website to another. RSS offers the opportunity for websites and humans alike to access timely, simple updates and notifications. Want to share a playlist of your favourite tunes with friends from iTunes? Export an RSS feed! Want to subscribe to a blog and be notified the moment a new post is published? Import an RSS feed! Want to furnish all your resellers/distributors with an up to the minute list of your products? Export an RSS feed! Want to publish press releases from your website? Export an RSS feed! You get the idea.
You've probably seen the RSS icon (above) on many websites and may have wondered what it means. If you click the icon then you're invariably shown the raw XML code - then what? It's probable that your web browser may ask you what you want to do with the data file you've just clicked and there's a pretty good chance that the vast majority of people faced with such a choice won't have a clue what to do next. And therein lies RSS's biggest problem, users don't and shouldn't have to expect to integrate apps or import code because all this (web) stuff should just work, shouldn't it...?
As a self confessed geek I'm both permitted and expected to call computer code beautiful. RSS' beauty lies in its flexibility and ability to export/import all kinds of useful data yet its beastliness derives from the inescapable truth that, at the end of the day, RSS is just raw, structured data. Yet, even for self-confessed geeks, using RSS is at times clunky.
This week I've been thrilled that I've been able to get back in contact with Steve, an old schoolmate whose tour of duty has ended and brought him to Norway; texts and video calls have been bouncing between us as we've caught-up on the stuff from the past 30 years. One question from Steve: "What music are you listening to right now?" Quick as a flash I was able to direct him to my last.fm profile - easy! Revisiting this profile of mine reminded me that it offers a variety of RSS feed options and I felt it was about time to import a list or two into my personal website. I syndicated the feed into my site and, as a self-confessed geek, thought I would have been able to import the feed into an app in a jiffy. But, within seconds, I found my brow becoming furrowed - different browsers wanted to handle the feed in different ways and even apps that were able to handle RSS feeds put up a bit of a fight. The fight was worth it though as I now carry in my phone an up-to-the minute list of which music/artist/album I listen to most.
Whilst, to you, this may not sound significant, can you imagine if you were able to put out an RSS feed of all your products and services that your clients could carry around in their phones without you having the cost of developing and maintaining a smartphone app? Most apps built by commercial businesses are, let's face it, nothing more than glorified price lists anyway and, because RSS feeds can automatically update themselves, with RSS you will never have to force your clients to upgrade their app every time your prices change. Like I said, RSS isn't simple - it's beautiful.
Email clients present us with email, web browsers present us with the web, music apps present us with music playlists yet RSS files work in all three of these apps and there is no one app for handling RSS. As a user you need to understand that the RSS file you're downloading is, for instance, a news feed and, therefore, you need to know which installed app is best to process the file that contains the news; importing an RSS feed into an app usually involves a clunky copy and paste of a URL.
RSS has failed to secure a foothold because of users' understandable lack of enthusiasm for handling raw data. A podcast RSS file, in reality, is pretty similar to an RSS file of a news feed, a product catalogue, a price list or a list of contacts from a CRM system. Alas, there is no sleek interaction between RSS and our everyday apps and for as long as this continues RSS shall remain the darling of the techies and a pain in the RSS for users.
Despite the apparent difficulties using RSS I would really urge you to give RSS a go to appreciate the potential; the reason? RSS is a discrete way yet efficient way of communicating right into the inboxes of customers. Using RSS, customers are able to subscribe to multiple specific feeds from you on the topics and interests which precisely match their requirements. RSS respectfully puts meaningful information right where it's needed and is a world away from the deafening noise generated by social media types seeking self-validation.
For instance, this blog outputs an RSS feed - an index of all its posts - that you may import into Outlook, a dedicated feed reader or your preferred email app. Once imported, when a new post is published, the feed automatically updates and a notification will appear in your Outlook, or similar, for you to read the blog or news item as and when it suits you to. To me, keeping all your alerts and notifications in one place seems to make total sense and where better than your work inbox?
We've seen the launch of Apple Watch and my considered view of this wearable technology is that it's primary function is to extend the reach of app notifications for consumers. Life is busy enough; too many apps shout for attention, guilt-tripping us into action, alerting us that someone we're connected to has farted. Being connected is, indeed, wonderful yet being connected all the time feels unhealthy. It's time to take back control and decide what information we want and dictate where we receive it. It's time for RSS.