RSS: Beyond Headlines & Blogs

The new Google Desktop has been catching some flak in the blogosphere (man I hate that word) for being less than stellar. I posted my impressions yesterday. It’s all a little less innovative and a little more copycat than what we’ve come to expect from Google. Putting the general impressions aside, I’d like to focus on a feature Google included in Desktop that, I believe, is a hint of where RSS can really go.

In Google Desktop, it’s called Web Clips. In short, it’s a rolling list of headlines that are gleaned from web pages that you’ve visited that are also serving RSS feeds. So for example, if I visit Kottke.org, it sniffs out the RSS feeds he’s also made available and goes ahead and adds them to my Web Clips mix. After a few hours of browsing around the Web, I glance over to the Web Clips and notice a mixture of headlines from the various sites I’ve visited.

So what’s good and bad about this?

The Good

  • It’s nice to not have to subscribe to feeds. Rather than chasing around orange XML’s or cutting and pasting feed URL’s into a feed aggregator, the feed content simply starts showing up.
  • The whole sense of “dealing with feeds elsewhere” is sort of mitigated. I don’t need Feed Reader X to explore my feed subscriptions. They’re part of my desktop line of sight.
  • It requires zero understanding of what RSS is, how it works and why we should even think about it. From an interaction design perspective, this is the pinnacle of good design: unobtrusiveness.

The Bad

  • The rolling queue of headlines can only handle so much, so quickly. Even if you stretch out the widget in the side bar, you’ll see maybe five, eight, ten headlines at a time?
  • Who said I want headlines from every web site I visit? I may have checked into a site for a few seconds. Mind you, there may be some logic around what criteria allows a feed to make it into Web Clips, but after using it for a bit, it seems pretty arbitrary.
  • While the side bar generally gets you a bit warm and fuzzy when you first install it, the shine wears off very quickly and it just feels in the way. Do I want to see pertinent headlines? Sure. Do I want it in my face all day long on my desktop? No.
  • One of the great things about RSS is that it nicely buckets content based on feeds and how we organize and categorize them. This single, generic list feels like email.

With all that said, I think Web Clips hints us towards what RSS is really capable of: delivering key bits of information to us in an unobtrusive way with very little effort on our part. In a business context, this has enormous potential. Imagine headlines coming to you when:

  • An assembly part order has moved along a key point in a supply chain.
  • A document requiring approval by various parties moves along steps in a workflow.
  • Inventory stock reaches a pre-set threshold (either too low or too high).
  • Hours are exceeded (or near exceeded) in a consulting effort.
  • Outstanding invoices haven’t been paid for 30 days.

Today, all of the above require business participants to go get information. They may get it by sending emails or asking others. We try to use technology the help us do this by installing applications, but we often still have to go get it from an insulated application (whether web or otherwise).

RSS provides the transit system for delineating and delivering key information to users without requiring any proactive action on their part. It’s a tap on the shoulder. In today’s application of RSS, we get tapped on the shoulder because someone has something curious or interesting to say. It’s use is casual and mostly relegated to blogs and news sources.

It’s real power, in my opinion, is when the tap on the shoulder is followed by critical information. It is the inverse of your “check on this…” and “check on that…” task list. Once you’ve let it be known that you’re listening in, RSS will let you know when important events happen. For me, this is where it gets exciting for RSS: the realm of communicating critical information. RSS has the untapped capacity to redefine how groups of people communicate around centralized goals.

There are other barriers to talk about before RSS can get there. Google has (sort of) attempted addressing one of them – usability and ease of use. Others include security and it’s limitations as an XML payload, but these all can be solved. RSS is generating an enormous amount of attention these days. It’s really a matter of where all this energy (and money) that RSS is attracting is applied.

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