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the atom discussion heats up again

I'm listening to Sunday Bloody Sunday Live at Slane 2001, and there's Bono saying "Compromise: Another dirty word. Compromise."

Ok, enough with the hyperbole. Here it goes...

I've been pretty busy through the day (damn, actually I just looked at the time and I should say yesterday), but just now I check and another blog-firestorm is developing. And once again, the discussion seems to be close to turning into a pile of rubble.


I've already been seeing some things that were not apparent to me when the Atom process started back in late June. And I think that Don's idea is good: given the current situation, it would be preferable if Atom adopted RSS as its feed format.

I know that many have said that Atom sacrificed backward compatibility for the sake of more flexibility in the future, but looking at the current spec I can't see clearly where is this additional flexibility obtained. I'd like to see an example of a feature that can be done with Atom but not with RSS 2.0. This would go a long way to make me (and I'm sure, others) understand more clearly why we should revise our position.

True, it is highly unlikely that RSS embedded in Atom will happen---positions seem to be too entrenched for that. Blogger will probably release soon. MT is sure to follow. But Don is right, at least we can make our views known. Of course, I contributed to this in my own small way. What can I say: my position in July might have been reasonable, but that's no longer the case. Here's why.

First, the background.

Things flared up again yesterday, when Robert pointed out that Evan had posted a link to his Atom feed, and he said "(generated by Blogger)" and nothing more. This led Robert to ask why a new syndication format was necessary, and why Microsoft shouldn't just develop its own. (This last thing was half in jest, as I understand it). This in turn created a major discussion on his entry, with lots of different participants, but very few posts by the major stakeholders in Atom. Then Don posted some thoughts and Dave put forth his opinion. I think, as I posted in the comments, that the issue was not necessarily whether the format was going to be used by Blogger or not, but rather that Blogger was not giving a context for what was happening or explained clearly what the path was (more on that below), which led to speculation and some fiery responses.

When Atom began I was for it: as I had noted the API situation in blogland was not good, and Atom pointed to a solution. I still think that a unified API would be a step forward, and I am protocol-agnostic (XML-RPC, REST, SOAP--I might have my preference but mainly I just care that everyone agrees to support it). Then it became clear that Atom would also redefine the syndication format, and I said that shouldn't be a problem (see here and here). But then, over the next couple of months, things changed.

Changed how?

  • The first thing that changed is that I noted that some people had enough time to spend in the Wiki to "out-comment" anyone else. At the same time, the format was quickly evolving, in at least one instance changing completely from one day to the next. There was no clear process to how decisions were made, and voting on different things was repeatedly delayed and in some cases (such as naming) ignored and/or set aside. I put forth my opinion more than once (example, here and here, and others, like Russ, expressed similar ideas) that someone should take charge and responsibility for the ultimate decisions made: as it stood (and as it stands), the process is opaque, and the Wiki didn't (doesn't) help matters. A mailing list got started, and though I did not subscribe to it I kept updated by reading the archives. The truth is that I didn't subscribe because (right or wrong on my part) I felt things were happening without me being able to contribute anything of value. Sam once pointed out to me through email that the spec was influenced by "running code" more than by words, but even though I was one of the first people to add Atom support to an RSS reader (as well as adding it later for other things, like the Java Google-Feeds bridge), there was no effect from that either, even if I was engaged in the discussion at the time when I was working on the code. It didn't matter one bit. This is not a question of me not "getting my way", but it's a question of civility and of giving real answers to questions, of giving real world examples instead of going off in theoretical tangents, and of giving reasons instead of saying "your idea is ridiculous" and leaving it at that.
  • Microsoft and others (e.g. AOL) are now in the game. Had Atom converged on a spec within four weeks, we might be talking about something different today. Instead, it's nearly six months after it started and the spec is still at 0.3 (although the newest "full spec" I could find is 0.2) with no clear reason of why has 0.2 been declared 0.2, what were the reasons for choosing A over B (which was supposed to be one of the pluses of the Atom process) and such. Blogger is coming out with 0.3, according to Jason (He mentioned this in the comments to Robert's entry). Robert's in-jest "threat" of "why shouldn't Microsoft do its own format" is a very real concern that anyone should have. There is a comment here that says: "When people ask "why Atom", Atom's answer should be "because we can". Microsoft could rightly say exactly the same thing.
  • One big concern of some Atom backers had was that Dave had control over the RSS spec (this is still being mentioned today) Dave disputed this all along, but right now it's irrelevant: this claim should have changed (but it didn't) when Dave gave control of it to Berkman (on which I also commented here). In fact, it's been said over and over that it was "too little, too late". But Atom feeds (note: feeds, not the API) don't provide anything that cannot be done today with RSS 2 (ie., including namespaces). If the Atom feed format is still at 0.2 or 0.3, and even that has taken 5 months to define, is that not "too little, too late" as well?
  • The Atom camp started as a genial group of people wanting to improve things. But it has turned ugly. Some of its defenders at the moment are resorting to anonymous comments that say that a) RSS is dead and b) you're either on the Atom bandwagon or you will be left behind in your little poor RSS world. Regardless of the truth of those statements, I find it worrying that constructive criticism or a clear-minded defense of a belief in a certain direction has given way to (anonymous) aggression. Instead of supporting inclusion for people like me, anyone who doesn't agree is attacked. But "evangelizing" is important as well as useful, communicating what's being done, etc, helps developers churn out better code and create better conditions for users, and it's difficult for this to happen if developers are attacked when they ask questions. This is not a recipe for friendliness from developers and users alike. Which brings me to my final point.
  • One might always find people who resort to aggression, and obviously anyone can lose it once in a while. But I think that if Blogger and MT where to clearly spell out their position, saying why they want another format, why (if) they'd like to replace RSS, and, perhaps more importantly, what is the evolution path that they have planned, then it would be easier to get above the noise. At a minimum it would be easier to, based on that position, take it or leave it. I tend to think that it's completely within a company's or an individual's right to scrap something and start again. I might not like it, but they should be able to do it and let the marketplace have a go at it. Maybe it works! But when there's an installed user base, and developers that have a stake on things, not giving clear information or plans makes, at least me, wary. By not saying anything, by not participating in the discussion a lot more than they do today, the main Atom stakeholders are allowing others to define what they mean, others that might or might not reflect their true intent. No one can speak for Blogger or MT, they have to do it for themselves. I pointed this out in the comments to Robert's entry, when Mark was giving some reasons that were fine in themselves (that is, you might not agree, but that's not the point) but they were Mark's reasons, not Blogger's. As it is, one side is asking questions but no one is replying on the other end.

I simply don't understand why, if we are building communication tools, it appears that there's a lot of talk back and forth, but no real communication is happening.

Things can get better. The question is, Will we try? Given how things are, I think that just having a reasonable conversation would be a big step forward.

Categories:, technology
Posted by diego on December 4 2003 at 1:28 AM

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