Debate flares over weblog standards

Weblogs are poised to roil the status quo of enterprise collaboration and content management despite recent debate regarding the protocols underpinning the technology.

Quietly flourishing for years with tools from small vendors, online personal publishing technology has skyrocketed in popularity during the past year, attracting serious interest from megaplayers such as America Online Inc. and Google Inc. AOL plans to launch a Weblog tool dubbed AOL Journals later this year, while Google continues to digest Pyra Labs Inc., acquired earlier this year.

Most weblogs are currently fueled by RSS, known both as Really Simple Syndication and RDF(Resource Description Framework) Site Summary. Based on XML, RSS is a Web publishing format for syndicating content, and it is heralded for its simple yet highly effective means of distributing information online. Although not officially sanctioned by a standards body, the format enjoys wide adoption by RSS content aggregators and publishing systems. Media companies such as the BBC, The New York Times, and InfoWorld currently support RSS.

First introduced by Netscape in 1999, the format has been shepherded and enriched by a loose group of individuals, including Dave Winer, founder of UserLand Software, an Acton, Mass.-based weblog developer.

"By design, RSS is very simple. The power of the concept is that you have incredible content flowing through it," said Winer, now a fellow at Harvard Law School. "(RSS) is very useful and is not waiting for (a problem) to solve. It met a need and had a purpose the day it came into existence."

Primarily used as the feed engine behind Weblogs, RSS is rapidly catching on as an efficient way to consume and manage the constant flow of dynamic content on the Web, according to Tim Bray , CTO of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Antarctica Systems and co-inventor of XML.

"The Web provides a good way of consuming information, but a Web browser by itself is not a good way to track a dynamic resource. RSS plugs that gap very effectively," Bray said. "(RSS has) the potential to impact how everyone interacts with the Web; it will be huge."

Despite the undisputed popularity and proven utility of RSS, a new standard is emerging in an attempt to lay the foundations for the Weblog's future. Originally dubbed Echoand now rechristened as Atom, the effort is described as a grassroots, vendor-neutral push to address some of the limitations of RSS.

Rather than adding to the existing RSS specification, development on these issues has splintered off into a separate effort due to disagreement among community members as to the purpose and direction of RSS. The idea is to build on the foundation of RSS, according to Anil Dash , vice president of business development at Six Apart, a San Francisco-based Weblog vendor.

"The reason there is a need for something else (is that) there are new types of data and richer and more complex connections we are trying to do that RSS is not meant to do," Dash said.

Critics charge that the multiple versions of RSS, the number of which ranges between two and five depending on whom you talk to, are causing confusion and are hindering interoperability.

"To date, people (involved with RSS) have failed to converge on one version and make the confusion go away," Antarctica's Bray said.

Other issues with RSS include the lack of an API component for editing and extending Weblogs. RSS uses separate APIs, metaWeblog and Blogger , which are controlled by Userland Software and Google , respectively.

Atom will be necessary for enterprises that "want interoperability or need to exchange data with someone who is outside the firewall," Six Apart's Dash said.

Furthermore, as Weblogs take hold in the enterprise, issues of scalability and extensibility will bubble to the surface. The open data format promised by Atom is the biggest issue for enterprise users, Dash said.

"RSS is very loosely defined, which is why it is so successful. And it is appropriate for what it does," Dash said. "But when going to an enterprise publishing system, being able to cleanly and neatly extend the API in defined ways is important. Users ask to tie Weblogs into applications but not be tied into (one) platform. This is our answer."

In addition, the fact that RSS has never been officially blessed by a standards organization is one reason why the Atom project rumbled to life, according to Bray.

"That is not a big problem necessarily, but there are those in corporations and the public-sector space who care a lot about (standards)," Bray said.

Perhaps because of this, RSS may soon be heading down the formal standards path, according to UserLand's Winer.

"It is absolutely necessary that (RSS) leave UserLand and become independent of any vendor," Winer said.

Although still under development, the Echo/Atom protocol isn't very far out from prime-time usage. Experimental Echo feeds are currently under way at Six Apart's TypePad and Pyra's Blogger.

By the end of month, work on the Echo API will be implemented in several major Weblog tools and interoperability testing will follow, according to Dash.

Plans are to submit Echo/Atom to a formal standards body, most likely the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), according to Sam Ruby , a member of IBM's Emerging Technologies Group and one of the developers of Echo/Atom.

Six Apart plans to release Echo/Atom test interfaces in the next shipping versions of its Movable Type Weblog product and in its TypePad-hosted Weblog service, due this summer.

While bickering over back-end protocols mounts, RSS continues to proliferate in both the public and enterprise domains.

RSS provides the foundation for both AOL and Google's forthcoming Weblog tools. AOL Journals, the RSS 2.0-based Weblog software to be released with AOL 9, will allow users to publish Weblogs via the Web, AOL Instant Messenger, cell phone, or text-messaging interface, according to Rick Robinson, vice president of community products at AOL in Dulles, Va.

For the foreseeable future, RSS and Atom will likely coexist, leveraging the benefits of Atom without losing RSS's simplicity and wide installed base.

"We will always support RSS in products as long as there is demand from our users," Six Apart's Dash said.

Regardless of which format emerges as the standard, Weblogs hold potential to reshape and integrate the enterprise content management and collaboration landscape. "It fosters team community and can foster more honest interchange of ideas," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk in Nashua, N.H.

Major content management and collaboration vendors such as Documentum, Vignette, and Interwoven are closely watching the space.

"We see it as an onramp to enterprise-level collaboration," said Jake Sorofman, director of product marketing at Documentum in Pleasanton, Calif. Documentum is eyeing the capability to initiate an eRoom from within a Weblog as a way to formalize a project, he said.

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