My friend Raymond…

My friend Raymond is getting some attention for his love of OPML over on Dave Winer’s here and here. As is typical of format geeks, there’s a debate over on Raymond’s blog comments about why you’d use OPML over XHTML ordered and unordered lists. When are people going to realize that 99% of people don’t care? I’ve been involved in more format discussions than I care to remember, and in the end the reason RSS and OPML will become popular is because Dave Winer goes to the effort to develop tools rather than writing specifications and hoping someone will write tools for them. The format in the end doesn’t really matter much, it’s just a way to format data. There have been thousands over the years, and as long as everyone can read it, the rest is just syntax and semantics.

Josh and I were having a debate the other day as to whether using a pseudo-protocol like fireant:// was an acceptable solution for one-click subscribe in our aggregator. Most of the other aggregators are fighting over feed:// or some other specific file format (like iTunes pcast files). Why should we worry about all this when all we want is to enable easy one-click subscribe for people who already have our software? Josh’s concern is that the geeks will be upset over our use of a protocol that’s not really a protocol (of course, no need to remind people that feed:// isn’t a valid protocol either) instead of doing it through a file or some other method that’s more robust. Sorry, it works. The facilities are already in the OS and the browser to facilitate it, why not use it? Is it a hack? Yeah, so what? It works!

The same people who would be upset about us using fireant:// as a protocol are the ones who’d be upset that people are using OPML rather than XHTML formatted unordered and ordered lists. Hello? Who fucking cares. The user cares that it works! We spend far too much time debating the merits of one format over another and lot less time than we should making sure that software works for the end user. This is why Dave Winer continues to be a success in getting formats adopted, because unlike the Atom folks who have spent years making a format that’s the most robust and most well-documented, there isn’t a refrence implementation. Why is Microsoft Word the default format for exchanging documents and not OASIS? Because of the software people use. Why is RSS the preferred format for exchanging feed information? Because there was software that worked when the format was introduced that everyone could use as a reference implementation.

There something also to be said for simplicity. OPML and RSS are simple. Perhaps the specs are not complete and don’t cover all the use cases, but I can also code something up to work with them in a matter of hours. I investigated the Atom publishing protocol, and it would take me a couple days to do a pull implementation. By contrast, I have done a full Metaweblog implementation in a couple of hours.

Dave Winer can be an ass, but I give him credit where credit is due. The people who spend so much time complaining about him are excellent at complaining and not so good at getting things done. For that, I look to Dave.

14 Comments on “My friend Raymond…”

  1. Daniel says:

    Agreed on all points! Daniel 😉

  2. Danny says:

    “The format in the end doesn’t really matter much, it’s just a way to format data. ” – I agree entirely. But what does matter is that the tools that are reading it share some set of conventions with those that are writing it. Like you say, if you want to allow users of your kit to use fireant:// there’s no reason not to, assuming that’s all you want. If you want to interoperate with other systems, you may have to go further, perhaps contemplate using an existing standard, or developing a new one.

    Atom format was 2 years in the making, RSS 2.0 took about 4, OPML has taked 5 so far. There are (informative) reference implementations for Atom – most notably the validator. But if you follow a good spec you don’t need a validator, it should just work. That’s the whole point. You agree on conventions, and your applications can work together.

    “Why is Microsoft Word the default format for exchanging documents and not OASIS?” – because one is a proprietary word processor application and the other a standards organisation?

    What about HTML, HTTP and XML? Proper specs or doesn’t it matter?

  3. Clint Sharp says:

    The problem is, standards and specifications are nice, but in reality nobody ever implements exactly according to the specifications. The specifications usually allow for ever conceivable use case and every conceivable permutation for the way in which the standard could be used. What this leads to is long and ardous documents, because it’s easy to plan for everything on paper, but implementing to spec usually requires a lot more effort than simply making it work to do what you want to. It’s very easy to write a 50 or 100 page document talking about how everyone agrees that data should be exchanged in this format, it’s entirely another to implement it.

    HTTP and HTML are largely defined by their reference implementations, which at the time of conception were developed by NCSA and later transitioned to Apache and Netscape. However, now if we look at standards for web development, it would be nice if everyone complied with the specifications, but the reality is not even Safari and Firefox, which are standards compliant browsers, render everything identically, even though the specifications are quite explicit. Internet Explorer is another matter, and in the end development requires workaround for different clients.

    RSS and OPML have been able to avoid a lot of these problems due to their simplicity. Also, when there’s a doubt in the specification, which for both is far from complete, there is a reference implementation to turn to to see how you should implement something.

    Often times people get together to define a standard that will solve a problem, take for example the Yahoo Media RSS group. There is a problem with enclosures. The specification is unclear as to multiple enclosures, and having to have a seperate for every enclosure isn’t ideal. However, after a lot of work a specificaction is out there, except there’s no reference implementation and no major adopters, so it isn’t gaining traction. There has to be an application to go along with the specification or it’s largely meaningless.

    Nobody’s writing software doing the same thing with XHTML formatted lists. The reason OPML is succeeding and will continue to succeed is because Dave Winer is developing software people are using to write outlines and collaboratively share information. In the end, that’s what matters.

  4. Danny says:

    I’m sorry, but not only do I disagree about the value of reference implementations, I don’t see their existence! What is the reference implementation for OPML and RSS? It is extremely useful to have some running code to work against, but unless it’s been built to specification you’ve no means of predicting its behaviour.

    Dave may be writing tools, but he’s writing tools that will work with Dave Winer systems (RSS 2.0, OPML, XML-RPC, Frontier/Manilla) rather than anyone else’s. That’s another benefit of specs – you’re not tied to proprietary systems. I’m not actually concerned one way or the other whether Dave develops cool outlining/collaboration tools. What I am bothered about is having to support badly designed formats in tools I write for the Web. Even Dave himself had to write converters for his outliner to handle lists found in the wild, even though they were spec-valid. Work that could have been avoided had there been decent specs. But it’s to be expected – bending a format designed to support simple hierarchical text editor (a 1980’s tool design, no less) out into every possible data application is just plain silly.

  5. Im not sure exactally what the debate is because im not familiar with the language.
    I took down my feed xml thing.
    Feeds just suck bandwidth.
    You ever seen someone with 100+ readers and like 3 comments per post?

    What happened to the interaction, reading text, reading comments.
    And how many feeds do you really need? And how hard is it to just click onto their page and see whatever there is to see via html?

    Feeds work for video only page, like rocketboom.

    AND.. now people age watching vlogs on those little videopod things.. All shrunk down to 3″x3″.
    Seeing video on the web isnt a new thing. I dont understand the hype.

  6. Mike says:

    I’d love to have a fireant:// pseudo-protocol, myself. Just some way to offer a FireANT one-click subscription.

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