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Why open formats are so important

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 by Dave Winer.

A picture named love.gifIf you look at the archive of Scripting News for May 1999, ten years ago, you'll see how important open formats are.  Permalink to this paragraph

At the time, a large company, Netscape, had done deals with major content vendors, Wired, Red Herring, Salon, Motley Fool and several others, to provide a flow of news for their new web app, my.netscape.com. Permalink to this paragraph

They didn't have to make this information public, they could have done private deals with each of the content sources. But they didn't. The format was documented publicly and the feeds were available to anyone who wanted to build on them. Permalink to this paragraph

At the time, I liked the river format, not the newpaper format that Netscape was using. Because the feeds were out there for anyone to use, I didn't have to do deals with the content companies.  Permalink to this paragraph

They were open in another important way -- anyone could flow their content through my.netscape.com, not just the big pubs. Suppose they had never heard of you, but you wanted your webzine to be part of their system. Because the format was open, and because their web app was too, anyone could join. This was important because at the time something new was happening -- weblogs, and they could be part of the flow because of this openness. If you had to get approval, maybe only the weblogs that Netscape liked could be part of their system. That would be wrong, imho. Permalink to this paragraph

And when Netscape was acquired by AOL at roughly this time, all the work could continue, even though their app was gone, and the people who worked on it had moved on. It truly was a coral reef, and for me as a technologist, there is no higher praise.  Permalink to this paragraph

Today, Facebook is nowhere near as open as Netscape was in 1999. If I had a different vision for Twitter, I'd more or less have to start from scratch. If Apple doesn't like or understand your app, you can't ship it for the iPhone. And if Google failed, we'd all be up a creek without a paddle. Now you might observe that those companies are alive and Netscape is gone. Maybe you can't be open and keep your franchise going. But what's the point of being alive if you're not free? And we don't know the outcome yet for most of these companies.  Permalink to this paragraph

Regardless, I think it's important to honor the contribution that Netscape made in laying the foundation for all the great stuff that has happened with RSS and is still to come. Thanks Netscape! ";->" Permalink to this paragraph

Ten years later, we now know how well RSS worked. And let it serve as a lesson for all who follow. Let others compete with you, encourage it even. It's how you stay sharp and it's how you build markets, not just companies. Permalink to this paragraph

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A picture named dave.jpgDave Winer, 54, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.

"The protoblogger." - NY Times.

"The father of modern-day content distribution." - PC World.

One of BusinessWeek's 25 Most Influential People on the Web.

"Helped popularize blogging, podcasting and RSS." - Time.

"The father of blogging and RSS." - BBC.

"RSS was born in 1997 out of the confluence of Dave Winer's 'Really Simple Syndication' technology, used to push out blog updates, and Netscape's 'Rich Site Summary', which allowed users to create custom Netscape home pages with regularly updated data flows." - Tim O'Reilly.


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