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We could solve the subscription problem

Friday, September 21, 2007 by Dave Winer.

Okay I've been writing about OPML reading lists here for years. I'm now on my second implementation, so maybe this time I'll get it right.  Permalink to this paragraph

But there's something cool that happens when (hypothetically) the entire installed base of podcatchers supports OPML reading lists. All of a sudden the subscription problem goes poof! Permalink to this paragraph

Ask anyone who's worked on a RSS reader, for that matter, ask anyone who's used one, what a PITA it is to subscribe to a feed. All those little buttons, or copying and pasting, and looking at urls, and trying to figure out whether you want this format or that format. It's a miracle anyone actually subscribes to feeds it's so damned complicated. Permalink to this paragraph

Before you blame anyone, it's not actually anyone's fault. It's a result of the market not being a monopoly. The only way to solve the problem is if everyone uses the same web app to manage subscriptions. And we know that's not going to happen any time soon. Or, if every reader supports OPML reading lists. Now that might actually happen, even though it's not very likely. Permalink to this paragraph

But podcasting, that's a whole other story. According to many people there's only one podcatcher, iTunes. So that's simplified the problem. For example, look at this page of NY Times podcasts, and how they handle it.  Permalink to this paragraph

A picture named timesSubscribe.gif Permalink to this paragraph

See the Subscribe button? Nice. Except for one thing. It really should say "Subscribe in iTunes" because that's what it does. And it works, because in many people's minds, iTunes is the only way to subscribe to a podcast. Permalink to this paragraph

And it could stay that simple if Apple would do one thing, offer the option of publishing the OPML automatically to a publicly accessible web address, so the user could continue to use Apple's server to handle subscriptions, even if they're using a different podcatcher (for example one that runs on a Nokia N800). It would be the mark of a truly great company if they did that. Maybe they are that great. Permalink to this paragraph

Otheriwse at some point we're going to ask the NY TImes to change their page. And they may not be too happy about that. Wouldn't blame them if they were. Permalink to this paragraph

Moral of the story: If we can centralize the subscription process, and move it out of one reader or another, and get the readers to all support subscription to reading lists, the awful ugly issue will go away for users. It's one of the oldest tradeoffs in the tech business, to make it simple for users, the vendors have to give up some power.  Permalink to this paragraph

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Last update: 9/21/07; 5:05:54 PM Pacific. "It's even worse than it appears."

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