Atom v. RSS: A Technical and Public Policy Note

I just added a content syndication feature to this blog, via the little "Atom Feed" button over to the left. It's an "Atom" feed, not an RSS feed, for the simple reason that the blog is hosted on Blogger's free service, and Atom is the syndication format that Blogger has decided to support. (Up to now, Blogger has supported RSS for users of its paid BloggerPro service, and apparently it will continue to do so. At least for now.)

I point this out because RSS is the established weblog syndication standard. Atom is a brand new alternative. I'm not a captive user; it would be relatively easy for me to move the blog to a server and implement an RSS feed. But I'm lazy and cheap, so I stay here and use Atom. If there are a lot of other folks out there like me, who migrate to Atom initially and largely because of its connection to Blogger, we may see some interesting technical and economic changes around the Internet, some technical, and some economic.

There's a fair amount of debate going on within the technical (non-user) blog community over two aspects of Atom:

One (technical) debate concerns the decision by some aggregator developers not to parse Atom feeds that are not "well-formed"--a decision that allegedly violates an early tenet of Internet architecture sometimes called "Postel's Law" and still observed throughout most of the Internet's technical universe: "Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send." Don't punish users for technical screwups deeper in the network. It's better that the network run at all, rather than it run perfectly or shut down. A move to technical standards that reward perfect compliance may disrupt network functionality in unexpected ways--and may signal a move toward recapture of the Internet by those savvy enough to understand how it all works.

A second (economic) debate involves the fact that Blogger itself has decided to support Atom, and not RSS. Blogger is owned by Google, and Google is the next big thing on the Internet. There are some who suggest that if Microsoft threw its weight behind a technical standard like Google has now thrown its weight behind Atom, there would be hell to pay. We'll see. Microsoft has been supporting RSS, so there are interesting questions here, at both technical and policy levels. This strikes me as an aggressive move by Google, and it raises a host of questions. Can Google put substance behind the swagger, or is this posturing to try to head off (or build value in anticipation of) an MS takeover of the company and/or the search market? If weblogs are the next "killer app," and Google is making a play for control of the market, what does that mean for the ongoing brou-ha-ha (as well as a decade-plus worth of public and private litigation) over Microsoft's anti-competitive behavior? Is Google setting itself up for the same treatment? Or were we premature in condemning Microsoft, before giving the market (fast-changing though it was) a chance to catch up? Maybe the market is catching up, after all. Is there room for more than one standard here? Or have we been wrongly worrying about extension of the OS monopoly (Microsoft), when we should have been worrying about extension of a middleware monopoly (Google)? (Irony alert: Netscape was simply ahead of its time!) Will users care? And should they?

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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