The streaming news feeds known as RSS (Really Simple Syndication) may get a dramatic boost if Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7.0 supports feeds when it's released later this year. But the stimulus for the new technology will be hindered if IE is unable to handle what's known as "secure RSS." It now appears that IE 7.0 will lack that ability.
Why, you may ask, is this important? Because secure RSS is the key to feeds that contain confidential corporate data, paid-subscription content, and other commercially viable news updates.
The speed at which this new technology develops may be radically affected by IE 7's initial support -- or lack of support.
The Business Case for Secure RSS
When we're talking about "secure RSS," we really mean three things: Authentication, Authorization, and Encryption:
- Authenticationmeans that a subscriber to an RSS feed can't read the content without entering a username and password (or a smart card or some other proof of identity). The authentication process enables companies to restrict information to certain employees and allows premium content to flow only to paying customers.
- Authorizationis a separate step. After authentication, a central server determines whether the person who's logged on is actually entitled to a given RSS feed. An employee who used to be authorized might have been fired, for example, or a subscriber who paid 12 months ago might need to renew.
- Encryptionprevents unauthorized parties from "sniffing" RSS content as it passes across the Internet. Once a particular user is authenticated and has been found to be authorized, it's relatively easy to encrypt an RSS feed using the well-understood HTTPS protocol.
Popular RSS readers such as NewsGator have supported RSS authentication for months or years. NewsGator CEO Greg Reinacker has posted in his bloga more-detailed description of the above points and even provides tips on the best ways for his competitors to build RSS authentication into their products.
Bloglines, a major online RSS reader, currently supports authentication but not encryption, according to Paul Loeffler, a Bloglines spokesman. He said the company hasn't yet committed to a date when encryption will become available, although it is being considered.
RSS penetration is fairly low at this early stage. About 82 percent of computer users don't even know what the term RSS means, according to a June 2006 reportby Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen.
But this low rate of adoption will change quickly, in my opinion, as soon as RSS is supported by widely distributed applications such as IE 7 and Microsoft Outlook 2007 -- assuming they provide full support.
Will IE or Won't IE?
I asked Microsoft developer Sean Lyndersay about rumors I'd heard, some that say the beta of Internet Explorer 7.0 already supports RSS authentication, while others say it doesn't.
"IE7 still doesn't support authenticated feeds," Lyndersay told me in an e-mail message. "We made changes in Beta 2 to explicitly block these feeds because users would subscribe to them and then not understand why they might be failing to update. It's possible that, in certain circumstances, we do not correctly detect [in the beta software] that a feed requires authentication, so it may appear as if it works."
Lyndersay added, "Our omission of support for authenticated feeds in IE7 is simply due to the higher priority of other features for this release. It is safe to say that we consider this feature top-of-the-list for the next release."
That sounds pretty definite -- IE 7.0 won't support secure RSS. But others feel that the feature is so tantalizingly close to completion that it might still appear when IE7 is released to the public.
Making Money with Secure RSS
One model for the way many companies will soon employ RSS authentication is SpanningSalesforce.com. This business, founded last year by former NewsGator vice president Charlie Wood, allows subscribers to the Salesforce.comservice to collect business leads via the continuous stream of an RSS feed.
Wood charges $12.95 per month or $129.95 per year for this transformation of Salesforce data. He says he has "a few dozen" paying subscribers. In these pioneering days, that arguably makes his service the world's largest paid, authenticated RSS feed. (Note: The Wall Street Journal Online, which surpassed 700,000 subscribersin 2004, is considered the world's largest paid-sub news site. But its RSS feed is free of charge and consists only of summaries of WSJ stories.)
Spanning Salesforce exhibits both of the traits that future authenticated RSS feeds will have -- once RSS readers support the technique:
- Confidential information is transmitted,requiring authentication of subscribers and encryption of the data provided to them; and
- Payment for the service is involved,which means that the RSS feeds must be delivered only to subscribers who are in good standing.
Wood recently found that beta 3 of Internet Explorer 7.0 could recognize his secure RSS feeds. But it may be only a fleeting behavior, he says.
"The fact that IE7 b3 can access authenticated RSS feeds is a bug -- it's not supposed to be able to do that," explains Wood. "The problem is that IE knows how to handle authenticated resources fine, but the Windows RSS Platform doesn't. So the current beta will let you get at the feed and subscribe to it (all in the browser), but then the Windows RSS Platform is responsible for updating it, and it doesn't know how to deal with authentication, so the feed never gets updated."
Will the RSS Platform get fixed before Windows Vista is released? Will this allow IE 7 to support secure RSS, therefore making the benefits of authentication available to businesses large and small?
Your guess is as good as mine. I long ago stopped trying to predict which features in Microsoft betas would survive into the shipping products.
Outlook 2007 May Make a Bigger Difference
There's one other big factor in the adoption of secure RSS. Users of the forthcoming Outlook 2007 e-mail program, code-named Outlook 12, may be even more interested in authenticated RSS than users of IE 7.
Reading RSS in the e-mail program you use all day actually makes a lot more sense than trying to track your feeds in a browser window that comes and goes. Outlook 2007 users could represent a bigger influence on Microsoft to add RSS authentication than users of IE 7.
Like a lot of things about Windows Vista, we'll have to wait a few more months to learn which RSS features Microsoft really will and won't support. If Outlook 2007 and IE 7 do, in fact, both support RSS authentication in Vista, however, the future of secure RSS as a serious business proposition will look very bright indeed.