Microsoft’s Bid to Change RSS Name Sparks Controversy

Microsoft may not change how RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds are referred to in a still-in-development version of its Internet Explorer (IE) browser, but the software giant’s consideration of a name change has sparked a Web-wide debate about what to call the content feeds and whether a new moniker would help expand consumer use.

The issue came to light in recent days as developers got a second beta version of IE 7 and noticed that it used the term “Web feeds” to refer to capabilities of the browser to use RSS to handle syndicated content feeds. The move is hardly unique, as Google, Firefox and others have searched for short-hand ways to refer to RSS, a widely known term in tech circles but one that’s obscure to the consumers who are being enticed to use it.

In a survey released this week, Nielsen//NetRatings found that 66 percent of respondents said they either had never heard of RSS or did not understand how it worked. That lack of understanding is critical, said NetRatings analyst Jon Gibs, because “the growing popularity of blogs has catapulted RSS into the spotlight as a content personalization tool.”

The firm said the gap in understanding is important because the flood of new blogs and the rise of blog readership makes the technology essential to ensuring that users get the content they’re interested in.

Hands-Off Approach

That confusion has been noted before and certainly isn’t limited to RSS. A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project survey found 91 percent of Americans didn’t know what RSS meant — and some 70 percent didn’t know what “phishing” was.

Microsoft included RSS feeds in a beta version of IE 7 renamed as “Web feeds” but has since said that it had not decided how the final, market version of the browser would refer to the feeds. That move followed a change in how Google referred to the feeds: it also has begun calling them “Web feeds.”

Not surprisingly, one of those who has taken a strong stand against the re-naming of RSS feeds is the founder of the technology, David Winer. In his blog, Winer said the move reflected the fact that “Big software companies … just can’t leave well enough alone.”

“It’s not powerful, or interesting — it’s childish and self-defeating, but it’s evident in both BigCo strategies for RSS,” Winer added.

Winer said he was pleased to see that both Microsoft and Google had accepted RSS “in part” but added that some major Internet companies, notably Yahoo, have embraced the technology “wholeheartedly.”

Microsoft is not breaking new ground in considering a new term for RSS. The Mozilla Foundation, which makes the Firefox browsers, has coined the term “live bookmarks” to refer to the feeds in its browser.

Matter of Time

Many analysts have come out in favor of a name change, with some saying that it’s likely that user wariness of RSS in general is in part due to the term. Just as clickable Web links are user-friendly, many browsers and other tools similarly have built-in RSS feed readers that make it unnecessary for consumers to know how those feeds are reaching them.

Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox said the term RSS “needs to go the way of HTML or URL” and noted that the acronym has already changed meanings from its original designation as RDF Site Summary.

“RSS describes a technology, in some ways a function, and like other technology nomenclature should remain with the specialists,” Wilcox said. “The masses deserve something more palatable. Maybe the discussion should be more about what the best name should be rather than why not to change it.”

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