Tim Bray announced today on his blog that the Atom Publishing Protocol, a way to create and update Web resources, is “done”. He wrote:

“Atom is

done.
Now the editorial processes grind away and eventually the official
specification of the Atom Publishing Protocol will be an RFC
substantially identical to
draft-ietf-atompub-protocol-17;
it’ll join RFC4287 as the official products of the IETF Atompub
Working Group
.”
via Danny Ayers

What does that mean in english? Basically that the Atom Publishing Protocol is almost finished. It’s not yet ‘official’, but it’s all over bar the shouting. There is already an Atom syndication format, which is a competitor to the more widely used RSS 2.0. The term ‘Atom’ is used to refer to both the syndication and the publishing standards – and ultimately Atom aims to enhance feeds on the Web.

Things are moving along nicely for the RSS 2.0 spec too, with Version 2.0.9 being published in June. So now is a good time to compare progress of the two competing feed standards. RSS 2.0 is the market leader, but a number of things point to a promising near future for Atom.

Syndication Wars: Then and Now

Remember the Syndication Wars in the early part of this century? It started out as RSS 1.0 vs 2.0, then in 2003 Atom (nee Echo) replaced RSS 1.0 as the ‘alternative’. RSS 2.0 came out the victor over both 1.0 and Atom, thanks mainly to bigco support from Microsoft and Yahoo. And the fact it is much easier for publishers to implement ( the middle ‘S’ stands for ‘Simple’).

However Atom, a more complicated but much more powerful feed standard, has always had a lot of support – notably from Google. And now that the search giant owns the largest feed management service in the world (Feedburner) and runs an increasingly popular and sophisticated RSS Reader (Google Reader), does that mean Atom’s time is coming – very soon?

The Syndication Wars are still smoldering away, even though they don’t dominate blog headlines like they used to when I started blogging in 2002/03. At that time, Dave Winer’s blog Scripting News and Mark Pilgrim’s blog diveintomark were among the most popular tech blogs. Winer was the main creator of RSS 2.0 and Pilgrim was one of the co-creators of Atom, so their blogs became battlegrounds in the Syndication Wars. Over the past 4-5 years, those battles have died down – Winer and Pilgrim in particular got burned out by the fighting. Nevertheless the debate about the relative merits of RSS 2.0 and Atom is still active among feed geeks. The response to RSS 2.0.9 by Atom co-creator (he also co-created XML) Tim Bray demonstrates this:

“Yep, ladies and gentlemen, it looks like there’s trouble on the horizon.
On the RFC4287 syndication-format front, it may have been stable since 2005
and widely deployed, but watch out, there’s
a new version of RSS 2.0
! (2.0.9, to be precise). RSS 2.0 is
sort of RFC4287’s main competition, and if there are two different specs, I
guess that must mean it’s twice as good.”

The sarcasm in that post didn’t escape the attention of RSS 2.0 advocate, and a key member of the RSS Advisory Board, Rogers Cadenhead. He replied that RSS 2.0 is “winning by a large margin” against Atom:

“According to the latest stats on Syndic8, 80.6 percent of the 510,000 feeds in its database are RSS feeds and 82.1 percent of those are in RSS 2.0 format. Atom totals 16.6 percent.

Atom isn’t gaining market share in Syndic8, either. As of February 2006, 77.8 percent of its 455,000 feeds were RSS, 18.1 percent were Atom, and 68.2 percent of the RSS feeds were in RSS 2.0 format.”

Atom’s Threat to RSS 2.0

It’s obvious that RSS 2.0 is still the dominant publishing standard for feeds. Even so, Google has the potential to be the kingmaker in the Syndication Wars very soon.

Dave Winer argued recently that Feedburner is trouble. Robert Scoble added that the RSS Advisory Board is under the control of bigcos now, including Google. In both cases I don’t think it’s that bad – Feedburner is not an ‘evil’ company (I like and respect the people who run it) and there are enough non-bigco reps on the RSS Advisory Board (Rogers and Randy Charles Morin, to name two). However I do think that Google’s acquisition of Feedburner makes them much more influential in the Syndication Wars. Whether they use this power or not, Google now has the muscle to convert publishers to Atom – via Feedburner, or Google Reader, or indeed any another popular Google product that is based on feeds.

Note: it was noticeable that Feedburner’s representative on The RSS Advisory Board, Eric Lunt, was the only board member to vote against Version 2.0.9. I’m sure there’s a reasonable – and technical – explanation. But what was it?

Randy Charles Morin, a member of the RSS Advisory Board, defuses any suggestion that Google is trying to take control of RSS. And I agree with him – there’s no evidence that Google wants to control RSS 2.0 or indeed replace it with Atom. But I would suggest that it’s inevitable that Google will use its influence to push Atom forward, which will please those people who want to see feeds used in a more sophisticated way.

My prediction is that Google’s influence will see Atom become the dominant feed publishing standard within the next few years.

And that may actually be a good thing long-term for feeds. The main advantage of RSS 2.0 is it’s simplicity for publishers. But with tools like Feedburner’s SmartFeed (which makes your feed compatible with any RSS Reader), publishers nowadays don’t need to worry about the code behind feeds. So that opens the way for a more complicated format with more power – like Atom. [Update: in the comments, Tim Bray points to this comparison between Atom and RSS 2.0] Interestingly, even Rogers Cadenhead seems to agree that Atom is the future, as he commented on Danny Ayer’s blog that “I think the move [by Atom] to couple a syndication format with a web service API was genius.”

What do you think – is Atom near the tipping point to usurp RSS 2.0? I don’t claim to be an expert in the minutae of the Syndication Wars, so your comments or clarifications are welcome.