Microsoft, RSS and Attention

The big announcement at last week’s Gnomedex was the news that Microsoft plans to bake RSS into Longhorn. In just a minute I’m going to ask you to blog about this, but this requires some background first. I know this is a lengthy post, but the fact that you’re reading it means this is important to you, so please bear with me.

Microsoft’s plans are two-fold: to extend RSS so that it handles lists, and to provide a common feed subscription list and data store that can be shared among applications running on the same desktop. I believe these are both good things, and I’ve offered my hand to Microsoft to help them develop these in a way that benefits everyone.

In other words, I’m going to trust Microsoft. I believe companies – like people – can change, and I’ve seen plenty of signs that Microsoft has indeed changed. Unlike Google, Microsoft has joined the conversation via blogs and RSS. Hell, the fact that Scoble still has his job suggests that they’re a changed company!

So, I’m going to take them at their word that they’ll develop RSS support in a way that’s open, and I hope that I’m not singing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” a year or two down the road. But by trusting Microsoft, I’m also trusting them with your attention, and I don’t want to speak for you without explaining what I believe this is about, and then hearing your opinion on it.

What was interesting about Microsoft’s announcement was that they didn’t talk much about search, which is surprising given the huge competition they face from Google and Yahoo. In my opinion, a big part of the growing interest in RSS is about how search can be improved by watching what you read via RSS.

One of the most powerful things about RSS is that it breaks information into individual items – bite-size chunks, if you like – which theoretically enables tools and services to find out what you’re paying attention to. The more that’s known about what you’re paying attention to, the more relevant information the service can automatically provide for you (and the more irrelevant information the service can automatically discard).

This may sound Orwellian to some, but it’s actually very useful, and it’s already widely-used. Think of the books that Amazon recommends to you based on previous purchases, or the DVDs that Netflix recommends based on past choices. They do that by looking at what you’ve paid attention to in the past. I like this, and I want more of it – especially if what I pay attention to in one service could help me find relevant information in another service.

Now, Microsoft plans to add a common RSS feed list and feed store to Longhorn, which means that instead of requesting feeds via HTTP, aggregators like FeedDemon would request them through Longhorn’s RSS APIs – enabling Windows to find out what you’re paying attention to. That sounds incredibly useful for developing personalized search, doesn’t it?

And I’m actually fine with that, because I want personalized search. I want my attention data to help tools and services find the stuff that matters to me so I can cut down on information overload. But I only want this if:

  1. It’s done in a way that protects my privacy
  2. The service that collects my attention data lets me get it back, so I can share it with other services

I’ve written about attention and privacy before, but I haven’t really talked about the second point, which is where it gets tricky. Your attention data is very valuable to the services that collect it, so there’s not a lot of incentive for them to give it back to you. But even though you’re paying those services by giving them your attention data, that shouldn’t mean that they own it. It’s your data, and you should be able to share it with other services so that they can use it to make recommendations for you.

This isn’t about Microsoft or any one company. I fully expect Gmail to add RSS aggregation, enabling Google to better understand what you’re paying attention to so they can provide a more useful personalized search. Same goes for Yahoo and everyone else getting into the RSS business. See, I believe we’ve won the RSS battle and the next battle is for attention, and we should let everyone who hopes to gain from our attention data know that we want it back.

And that’s what I’m asking you to blog about (or, if you don’t have a blog, comment here). If you believe that you should own your attention data, now is the time to sound off about it. You don’t need to link to me or even mention me in your blog – just make sure to include “RSS and Attention” in your entry’s title so that everyone who pays attention to this subject (ie: Microsoft, Google, myself, etc.) can find you. I’m taking Microsoft at their word that they’ll listen to the conversation while designing their RSS support, so let’s test them on this.

Note: This is part of the battle that Steve Gillmor has been fighting for quite some time – it just took me a while to grok it :)

29 thoughts on “Microsoft, RSS and Attention

  1. How would these various services — from different companies — give my attention data back to me? Presumably, each of these services is going to accumulate and use my data in different ways. It seems to me that to maintain ownership of my attention data, I cannot commit it to an application that won’t give in back in a standard (or one of several “standard”) formats. But no such standard exists. (Does it?)
    In what format do I get my attention data back? How do I even know in what format I want my data?
    This is not a criticism of your post, but I am confused trying to tease it out.

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  2. Dan, that was actually going to be the subject of a follow-up post :) I figured if I talked about formats in this post, the conversation would turn into “format A is better” rather than the concerns that are more important to end users.
    I’ll post specifically about formats (ie: attention.xml, opml, etc.) later on, but for now, let’s just accept the fact that for attention data to be shared, we will need to agree on a common format. FWIW, I personally don’t care which format is used because the hard part isn’t storing attention data, but instead collecting it in the first place.

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  3. I most certinally want to keep control over my data. I want to be able to share it with open source tools as well as billion dollar companies so their products can work together.
    To Dan: I can understand you confusion but I think what Nick means is that your data will stay on your system in a standard format that anyone can use if you allow them to. Say Nick updates FeedDemon so that it can suggest feeds to you (kind of like a search channel but a transparent one based on what you are already subscribed to). With the Windows RSS APIs, Nick will be able to make a simple call to this central database and get all the information he needs, what Nick does with it doesn’t really matter (technically here, not ethically) as he has all the information on the format that the data is delivered in and he can work with that.
    What I get from Nick’s post is that he wants us to voice our opinions that we want to keep our “attention data” in a format/location we can access it and have control over who gets it and when.
    I would like to see an implementation similar to what is in Outlook. When another application tries to use a feature of Outlook you get a prompt saying “Program XYZ wants access” and you can allow/deny access as you wish.
    I am also with Nick on trusting MS with this. MS has changed over the past year or so. Look at things like Channel 9 and the number of blogs they have available! They are very active in the RSS game when it comes to providing content, now they need a tool which their users can use to make handling all that data easily.
    One thing I am wondering though is how will web services such as NewsGator be able to use all of these great new features in Windows Longhorn? Will they have to rely on client applications like FeedDemon (or perhaps a smaller transparent program)?

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  4. Great post, Nick! I agree and in a followup on my blog, what I want of these companies who aim to use my “attention data” is to have a symbiotic relationship, one where I receive a better service and if they gain profit from that, so be it.

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  5. Nick, I’m glad you’re thinking about the format issue. Sorry for jumping a few steps ahead, but I thought your main point — that we need to maintain ownership and control over our attention data — was so non-controversial, I was ready to move on to what I thought might be a thornier issue. I’ll refrain from any further format-related comments until you propose to move on to that topic.

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  6. Bold move Nick. I, for one, personally believes that MS should work with W3C in changing the specs instead of jumping out and changing a language, yet again.
    MS has never gone through proper channels to get a language change. They feel cause they are of the size they are, they can just do anything they want. Announcement to alter RSS aka break it, is a good example.
    What’s your view on that one? What would W3C feel or the other RSS implementers? One of the biggest beefs a web developer has about MS is the *lack* of following the standards. Now they are opening admitting they are *not* going to do it, again, you’re going to follow foot?

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  10. Nick, I don’t have to trust Microsoft

    Quick Disclaimer: I’m a C# developer. I love Microsoft and their technologies very much. Go read this article really quick. I also really like the idea that Microsoft is developing a central feed repository in Longhorn. Unfortunately for them, I

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  11. Microsoft Longhorn RSS and Attention

    Nick Bradbury at Bradsoft has a great post on his weblog regarding the Microsoft announcement that it is baking RSS support into Longhorn. If you don’t know how the announcement might effect you then Nick’s post is worth the read.

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