February 19, 2006

The RSS Circus Is In Town, or, Specification As A Money-Ball

This is the circus of Dr. Lao.
We show you things that you don't know.
Oh, we spare no pains and we spare no dough.
Oh, we want to give you one hell of a show!
And youth may come and age may go,
But no more circuses like this show.


Syndication politics are every bit as twisted as any soap opera you'll see on daytime television. Only without the sex. And with a bunch of bearded fat guys in place of the pretty models.

Quick intro for non-tech readers: RSS, in various flavors, is the predominant format for distributing information for frequently updated websites, often but not exclusively, blogs. There is a lesser-known, though better-defined, competitor format called "Atom" (think VHS vs. BetaMax or IBM PC vs. Apple Macintosh). I will not attempt to recap the whole RSS history:

The development of the RSS standard may very well be a good case study of how not to go about developing a software standard. But ... it's bigger than that. The whole story has a rather Biblical arc to it. As in Genesis, there are two creation stories. A later generation of the standard wrestles with its Creator and triumphs, and is given a new name, Atom. Throughout the story, on archived mailing lists over the web-- jealousy! deceit! one-upmanship! oneman-shipup! Divine retribution! (Somebody must have wished for that somewhere). And that's just within the RSS standard.

Rather, I'm watching the latest episode, involving an RSS "Advisory Board" that is said not to exist, of similarly mythic chronicle:

A community, which now it seems, must absorb the Nine Champions of RSS 2.0, because they have been banished from the round table that was the RSS Advisory Board. A Board that is no more, created by a man who resigned from it, and who gave up any intellectual ownership of the specification, but still retains ownership of the specification, to wit, making decisions about who is or is not on a board that no longer exists for a technical specification given intellectual property rights by a University that had little or no involvement with the specification, ...

What I've seen commentators missing - and what makes it more a nighttime soap opera than daytime soap opera - is considering the $100 million (goal) venture capital fund around now. Which adds to the drama. That's a lot of money (it's not clear if it's actually $100 million, but that was the target). And such an amount of money has its own imperatives. And those are different from the things that bearded guys worry over.

The RSS specification has become a money-ball. That is, given that Harvard owns the specification, and some of the same players involved there are also involved in a venture capital fund based on, drumroll, RSS - we're not in Kansas, err, geekland anymore. We're in Oz, err, business. There's disclosure, of course, but that doesn't change anything.

Now, my own disclosure, some of the following analysis is undoubtedly affected by my negative Harvard experiences, so that may unduly sour me. Or give me greater insight. We'll see. But my assessment is: The Money Rules. It's clear that The Money is nervous. There's activity by Microsoft, and other big corporations. Any hint that there might be anything which casts doubt on the stability, primacy, readiness, usability, etc, of the great big asset they are trying to leverage, frightens The Money. It Will Not Be Allowed. Advisory Board? Never heard of it. Some obscure matter of years ago.

If you are able to somehow convey that you will sooth The Money, you serve The Money, you wish nothing more in life than to help The Money make even more money ... then maybe that'll work. Otherwise, the answer will remain that the specification license allows it to be used as a basis by other efforts, which is a very polite way of saying get lost. Enjoy being "Advisory-Board-In-Exile". Or worse.

This, by the way, is a reason why I am extremely leery of Harvard nowadays. I want to avoid being involved in any disagreement where it's moral rightness or technical merit versus powerful lawyers. That's bringing the proverbial knife to a (hired-)gun fight. Any decisions will be made on the basis of the relative power of the parties. And that's a bad place to be for someone like me.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on February 19, 2006 11:58 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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The Money of which you speak is not the only cash on the table. There's also the VC invested in Newsgator, SixApart, Feedburner and Technorati, all of whom have representatives involved with the Board. With SixApart's new $12 million investment plonked down along with all the other VC moolah, I think that's a raise on the $20M which constitutes the reported part of The Money.

So the keepers of The Money aren't the only ones with a big pile of greenbacks on their minds.

Posted by: Paul Montgomery at February 20, 2006 03:02 AM