Sep 20 2005

Why Microsoft needs RSS

Everyone knows that Microsoft announced at this year’s Gnomedex their support for RSS in their Longhorn (now Vista) release. A quick search on Google or Technorati comes up with plenty of people who have already weighed in on the subject (I particularly like Nick Bradbury’s post here). Most of the talk, however has been around how RSS integrates into IE (see the IE blog post on RSS integration here) and the associated ease with which IE users will be able to subscribe to feeds, create feeds and some of the ways they are extending RSS to handle lists and a common data store, etc. The rest has been centered around Microsoft’s RSS effort for developers to enable them to more easily pull feeds from applications. All great stuff, but that’s not at all why I’m excited about Microsoft embracing RSS and since no one else was writing about it I thought I’d throw my 2c into the ring. Love it or hate it, the Microsoft Office suite is a critical part of most businesses (with apologies to Star Office . . . ). Unfortunately their organizational/search/storage/retrieva  paradigm is all wrong. While trying to ease users into the computer age, Microsoft has unfortunately created programs that attempt to mimic how people use and store information in the off-line world (i.e., in logical hierarchies, folders, etc) – which limited the power of the new computing medium. This is true both within applications and between them; in our file folder hierarchies and in how we store mail; in how we save bookmarks to the admin of an LDAP directory. Anyone who has ever tried to search in  Outlook for a contact for whom you had only limited information or for a file that you misplaced understands the limitation of this system – it works great for structured data, but not so great for unstructured data (i.e., if you know you’re looking for Joe Smith in your contacts you’re fine; if you remember meeting someone name Joe who was an investment banker and who you met sometime in the summer of 2003 you’re screwed). The current system is fine for storing basic information, but lacks the database like ability to assign attributes and then search on those attributes (there are some limited ways to do this both in outlook, in contacts and for files – i.e., you can create different categories of contacts or add certain information to file properties but neither is very powerful and neither is meaningfully searchable). Enter the Internet age and people have discovered the power of unstructured data. Google built an entire service around it in the form of Gmail (lots of storage is great, but their real innovation was the elimination of folders in favor of fast and easy search and what essentially amounts to the ‘tagging’ of conversations). Both Google and Microsoft recognize it in their efforts in desktop search. And companies like and social text really really get it in allowing us to control how we label and categorize information. Perhaps I’m stretching some or perhaps being a bit too hopeful, but I believe RSS can bring Office into the 21st century. Imagine being able to tag a contact or a file with various attributes that you can later quickly and easily search on. Imagine being able to subscribe to a shared document folder to know when someone in a workgroup updates a file (enabling shared folders to function almost as a wiki). Imagine being able to stop placing files in work folders altogether but rather tagging then with the pertinent information which will enable you to much more easily find them later (and remember what they were for).

Great stuff – I hope MSFT is listening . . .