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Daniel Eran

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A Brief History of Data Syndication and Podcasting
Back in the mid 90's, visionaries were inflamed with the idea of converting the web into a television. Their fire was further fueled by PointCast's new syndicated content network.
In the scenario they imagineered, you don't go looking for information, but rather subscribe to information that then comes looking for you. The concept was assigned the buzzword "Push," and turned out to be something like a firehose of spam, with prominent commercial endorsements on the hose and nozzle, and the spam.

Microsoft and Netscape fought to the death trying to control the front door of everything Push. Microsoft decided that Push was the new Intarweb, and in order to not be left behind again, they embedded Push advertising channels into Windows 98 with all the subtly of a clown's makeup.

Push spilled out of the PointCast client into the web browser and out onto the Windows desktop. Instead of having a wallpaper picture of your dog, you could have an Active Desktop that featured ads from Microsoft's partners (including licensed Disney characters!), snippets of web pages, more messages from content providers, and then more ads.

Microsoft had a vision of their entire DOS user base becoming a far reaching empire of sheep watching Microsoft TV, except the "sheep" would have money to spend, and the "TV" was more like a jerky Flash ad than actual television programming.

Nobody questioned whether customers would be interested in such content. Instead, everyone+dog rushed out to build their own way to force feed the populace with their own brands and content. The goal was to set up a Portal website, trick people into visiting, then nail their feet to the floor, unleash the content, and ... Profit!

With such an airtight business plan, it's not hard to imagine why Rupert Murdoch's News Corp offered PointCast $450 Million at its apex of valuation. After the market did a reality check, PointCast's Network ended up getting sold off for $7 Million, merged and folded into a pile of other dot com failures, and ended up as lint in AOL's pockets.

The cash being infused into the Push fantasy did result in some useful ancillary development. Netscape created the "RDF Site Summary," a metadata description of a web site, to power Push on their portal.

RDF itself was the XML version of MCF, a technology that sprouted within Apple's Advanced Technology Group. It was basis of Project X (aka Hot Sauce), a 3D flythough visualizer for websites (imagine a hybrid of a web browser and Atari's Tempest). Along with QuickTime VR and QuickDraw 3D, the fluffy demo comprised the majority of Apple's software deliverables during the mid 90's, when they were supposed to be finishing Copland, but I digress.

The R(DF)SS acronym was simplified to Rich Site Summary, and then Really Simple Syndication. The basic idea of RSS is to distill the core content of a site and deliver it as raw data, devoid of presentation, in a structured file.

While every website looks, behaves and is organized differently, they can all publish an identically formatted XML file that contains a description of the site's content, with embedded information on the publisher, when it was posted, and links to find the content on the site.

RSS is a simple idea with a lot of applications. Initially, web sites traded RSS files and used them to automate the creation of links to top stories. Just as RSS started catching on, Netscape lost interest in Push and abandoned RSS/XML development. That left all the RSS feeds that pointed to Netscape's servers as the definitive XML definition of RSS, well ... SOL.

The open source community took over RSS, and served it up in their signature style of open, vendor independence, with chaotic versioning anarchy and ripe political feuding.

Without the ads that Push intended to deliver, the idea of syndication is now on a healthy rebound, with RSS feeds springing up everywhere. Using a news aggregator, individuals can select specific types of content they want to see, get updates delivered automatically, and quickly review new content of interest. Imagine RSS aggregated content on your iPod!

Former MTV VJ Adam Curry exploited the idea of referencing audio files in RSS feeds, so that listeners could subscribe to a feed that linked to audio files, download the files automatically, and listen to them at their leisure on an MP3 player. Curry's association of distributing audio via RSS, and listening to it on an iPod, resulted in the catchy term "podcasting."

Some dirty hippies have since tried to coin unnecessary, horrible variations on the term, including such painful aberrations as "audio blogging,""blogcasting," and "vodcast" (for VIDEO, GET IT? HAHA LOLBBQ.) Please stop. Those words aren't even helpful in Scrabble.

While the idea behind podcasting isn't tied to audio, Apple jumped on podcasting and included it in iTunes. Shortly later, after delivering an iPod that could display video, iTunes has turned into way to find and subscribe to any feed referencing audio or video files.

Apple also built a simple RSS reader into Safari. In addition to stand alone browser aggregators like NetNewsWire, Google has launched an AJAX powered Reader service that slices and dices RSS feeds.

Conspicuously missing from the rich media podcasting phenomenon is appropriate hoopla for the basic premise of RSS (and its Push ancestry) to deliver plain data on the iPod. That's one of two subjects introduced in my article on the ripping server.


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