Everything You Need to Know About RSS vs. Atom

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Remember Gulliver’s Travels? Remeber how the Lilliputian’s were at war over which end of a soft-boiled egg to crack? Remember how we all laughed at the little people?

Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

CNET has an article on Google possibly offering RSS feeds along with/instead of the Atom feeds they already offer.

If I’ve already lost you, go read the article now. It will give you just enough knowledge to be dangerous.

The article goes into the usual wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over the upcoming “Format Wars” and how it will turn into “Betamax vs. VHS.

I’m sorry, it won’t, and anybody who tells you different is either lying or knows nothing about software.

You see, Beta and VHS were different hardware formats, and therefore required different hardware to work. They were also proprietary formats, so you needed a license to create a compatible device. Creating a Beta+VHS device would have been a non-trivial task.

RSS and Atom are data formats. They are also open formats. All you need to write a news aggregator that supports both is an XML parser and a basic understanding of both formats. Parsers are plentiful, as are the documentations for these formats. Supporting both formats in a software application is a trivial task. So trivial, in fact, that most aggregators already do.

So the idea that people will have to use an Atom aggregator and a RSS aggregator are just silly. Do you use a separate app for plain text e-mail than you do for HTML e-mail? Do you use a different browser when viewing HTML 4.0 pages then when you view XHTML 1.0? Of course not—Data import/export is trivial. Solve it once, and all other formats (particularly if all those formats are XML) are cake.

The whole thing is rather simple: Each publisher should choose the one format they like, and use that for all their feeds. Each news aggregator developer should support every format they can get their hands on, in such a way that it is transparent to the user. If we can all agree to do those things, we can all eat soft-boiled eggs, and not be concerned by such unimportant things as which end is up.

And now you know just enough to be informed.