Quick and dirty substitute for Soap

'Really simple syndication' looks set to provide users with a short cut to the information they regularly need via the internet.


'Really simple syndication' looks set to provide users with a short cut to the information they regularly need via the internet.

If Soap and other web services standards seem like overkill for your business purposes, help is on the way in the form of Really Simple Syndication (RSS). And rather than originating from IBM and Microsoft, it is a standard that has come to the fore, mainly within the blogging community.

We have known that Microsoft was keen on RSS since it first showed a demo of Longhorn two years ago. At the time, RSS was being used to run a sidebar on the desktop. Since then, Microsoft's ambitions have expanded considerably. It is now building a "feed engine", or syndication platform, into the Longhorn applications programming interface.

In this case RSS is just shorthand for a common type of service. Microsoft said it plans to support RSS 1.0 and 2.0, the rival Atom 0.3 and 1.0 standards, and any other XML-based system that may become widely used. If Atom is adopted as an internet standard, there is no doubt Microsoft will support the final format.

RSS support obviously reflects the way blogging has taken off inside Microsoft, with the public blessing of chief executive Steve Ballmer. There are now more than 1,000 Microsoft bloggers, and if you want to find out what is going on in the company, you have to read Robert Scoble's Scobleizer, the various team blogs, and the MSDN's Channel 9.

But RSS/Atom support in Longhorn has much wider implications than blogging.

Microsoft intends to use RSS in applications such as Outlook and Office, as well as in Internet Explorer. Microsoft also expects third-party and corporate developers to use the RSS applications programming interface in their own applications.

Microsoft has floated some fairly trivial examples. It has suggested that, if you go to a conference, your calendar schedule could be continuously updated by an RSS feed, or you could have a regularly updated list of the top 20 downloads from a music site. Grandparents could have a screen saver auto-updated with pictures of their grandchildren as the parents post them to a photo-sharing site, or a 'live' version of their kids' Amazon wish-lists.

Indeed, Microsoft sees syndication as the third main route to information, the other two being browsing and searching. Once end-users have found a source they value - whether for stock prices, weather reports, photos, podcasts or sales figures - they just have to subscribe to the feed and RSS will deliver updates whenever they are published.

It is clear that there are lots of server-based applications (not blogs) that could work by syndicating packets of XML data to client applications (not RSS aggregators). These will not rival Soap/web services as a system for executing transactions.

However, for companies that have not adopted Microsoft.net or IBM's Websphere, they will provide a quick-and-dirty solution for many tasks, with very little programming overhead. The applications programming interface will do the heavy lifting.

Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian

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