Microsoft’s Repackaging of RSS

One of the cools things developers can do with RSS is apply a CSS or XSL skin so that users see a nice explanation and formatting of the feed rather than a bunch of XML. Feedburner’s XSL skin is probably one of the most popular ones out there. Here is the TechCrunch version. For the technically inclined, here’s a nice tutorial on dressing up RSS with XSL.
Anyway, I was playing around with Internet Explorer 7 Beta and noticed that any reference to an external XSL or CSS (for example Feedburner’s) is summarily ignored. Instead, IE7 applies its own built-in skin for viewing the feed.
Here’s the view that most browsers would see today followed by a view of the same feed in IE7.


Now, you can make a fairly compelling argument that what Microsoft is doing is a good thing. Providing a simple consistent way to educate and inform users about RSS is a positive step. However, the potential of RSS and the competitive advantage Microsoft will inevitably have with Vista and IE7, this may very well result in a hijacking of a technology that to date has flourished in large part due to its platform indendence.
RSS is capable of doing a hell of a lot more than just delivering headlines and news feeds. It is an incredibly powerful platform that Microsoft is very committed to. While my gripe may seem trivial today, as Microsoft evangelizes more specialized uses of RSS, the gravity of this important step will resonate later.
In the IE7 feed view, there is some explanatory text up top. I think the link to the word “feed” in the instructional text says a lot:

You are viewing a feed that contains frequently updated content from a website.

Despite its proliferation amongst technophiles, RSS is still unknown to the great majority of the world. They will be introduced to RSS for the very first time by Microsoft. And they will perceive RSS as a Microsoft product that is part and parcel of their browser and operating system. As to whether this is a good or bad thing is for another blog post (or two). Good or bad, few would dispute that this will be an inevitable consequence of Microsoft’s plans for RSS.

4 Comments Microsoft’s Repackaging of RSS

  1. Avi FLax

    One quick question: when you use the term RSS, do you mean it to refer specifically to the RSS standard, or do you use it generically to refer to the concept of “feeds” which could be in any one of a number of formats — RDF, RSS, Atom, iCal?
    I personally am leaning to using the term in the latter sense — that way you get the recognizability and buzz of “RSS” but the flexibility of using whatever format is actually appropriate for the task

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  2. Nick Bradbury

    Rich, this is a tough question to answer, especially for an aggregator developer like myself given that I “reskin” feed content in my own application :)
    On the one hand, by forcing their own transformation, Microsoft makes it difficult for users (not to mention services such as Feedburner) to customize the look of their feed. On the other hand, providing a consistent display is more user-friendly, since it’s obvious when IE7 is showing a feed as opposed to a “normal” web page. I’d probably side with IE7 team on this one, but I’m not totally convinced that’s the right decision.
    I can’t say I’m too concerned as to whether people will perceive RSS as a Microsoft product, though, any more than I’m concerned about HTML being perceived the same way due to the popularity of IE.

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  3. Avi Flax

    I’m also not too concerned about it. Still, I think it’s fairly clear what the right behavior would be: for IE to respect any XSL styling instructions embedded in a feed, and only to use its built-in styles for feeds that don’t have their own styling instructions. Everyone wins. Of course, it won’t happen, but at least I can feel all rightous about it.

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