RSS as a platform

March 18th, 2006 Comments Off on RSS as a platform

With the recent developments in the RSS world, including the launching of Windows RSS Plataform, the discussions about the use of the format as real platform is undergoing a change. Now, there is a lot of talk about how developers can maximize the potential of the format e how they can solve the existing infrastructure problems.

In all that I have read, I didn’t see much discussion about mutable RSS feeds, that is, interactive feeds that allows users to pass data through the aggregator itself, changing the future behavior of the feed based on their choices.

Obviously, support for such interactivity isn’t present in the current crop of aggregators — at least, in none of the many I know and/or tried. In fact, a persistent fear of security problems that could be caused by such interactivity pervades the entire area. XSS and similar exploits caused most aggregators developers to completly eliminate the use of objects, forms and JavaScript inside RSS feeds.

Such an approach puts extreme limits on what you can do with RSS, of course. More than an year ago, answering a question posed by a friend of mine, I wrote here about interactive RSS feeds. The application I designed to test the concept at the time (a very simple prototype) is still running and can be accessed in the test area of this site. It’s a RS feeds that instead of simply presenting content, allows users to act on its entries. Given the limitations present in the current generation of feed readers, you will probably need to open each entry in the browser to see the feed in action.

The big question is: what can we really do with RSS? Is a read-only platform enough? I don’t think so. Considering the context in which I created the application mentioned above, that of a course served through RSS, a read-only plataform is not that interesting. A typical course has an activity tree that’s completely dependent on the students’ choices. A read-only format would not provide a complete experience in such a scenario.

As mentioned before, there are real security concerns involved in allowing users to interact with a feed. Allowing any kind of content can lead to episodes like the one caused by Mark Pilgrim a couple years ago, whose RSS feed “took control” of hosting computer with a clever use of HTML. The text he wrote later about the subject impacted the development of an entire generation of aggregators. Yet, browsers handle the same issues today and — despite some problems — they do just fine.

Before I start repeating what I already said in the other article, I believe RSS can evolve a lot beyond what it is today. New applications — especially in the much hyped Web 2.0 style — depend on a bigger possibility of interaction than that offered by aggregators today. Since the competition in the area seems to be big, I guess it won’t take long until we see changes.

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