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Microsoft Crashes the RSS Party

By Jay Greene Microsoft (MSFT) has rarely been a company on the bleeding edge of new technology. Instead, it usually waits, watches the new thing catch on, then uses the sheer force of its market heft to muscle into the arena. It's a pattern rivals and partners have seen before, and one that's about to emerge again.

The software giant has decided to put its considerable weight behind Really Simple Syndication, known to the digerati simply as RSS. The technology makes it convenient for Web users to keep tabs on their favorite blogs, news feeds, columnists, and video by signing up to have updates automatically zapped to their PCs or mobile devices (see BW, 12/20/04, "Your Online Paperboy").

Microsoft, which has largely been on the sidelines as RSS gained in popularity, announced plans on June 24 to bake RSS technology into the next version of its Windows operating system, dubbed Longhorn, due at the end of 2006.

ATYPICAL MOVE. The fact that Microsoft is putting so much effort behind RSS suggests that the technology's time has come. Michael Gartenberg, vice-president and research director at Jupiter Research, estimates that about 10% of U.S. Web surfers use RSS readers, software designed to view feeds from Web sites. "This is the type of thing that will bring it into the mainstream," Gartenberg says. "It's going to change behavior, and it's going to do it very quickly."

What's more, Microsoft is going after the RSS market in a very un-Microsoft-like way - it's making its RSS technology available for free using the so-called Creative Commons license.

Though not quite open source, Creative Commons has a following among the free software crowd. It was developed by Stanford University professor Larry Lessig and requires people to use the technology as intended and give credit to the developer, in this case Microsoft, for creating the software.

POWERFUL TOOL. Before Microsoft brings out the new technology with Longhorn, it'll make RSS feeds readable from inside its widely used Internet Explorer browser. Right now, users typically have to cut-and-paste Web addresses into RSS readers to subscribe to services. RSS subscribers will be able to read those feeds in a test version of the new browser, available later this summer.

But Microsoft plans to dive much deeper when Longhorn ships. Including the RSS technology in the new operating system will allow thousands of software developers to create programs that take advantage of RSS feeds.

A husband, for example, could not only track his wife's wish list on Amazon (AMZN) using RSS but he could also sort through the list and find all the books under $30, or everything related to gardening. All Amazon would need to do is tap into the code that Microsoft would make available in Longhorn. "We want to make RSS better because it's so powerful," says Gary Schare, director of product management in the Windows group.

RESHAPING THE MARKET. The giant's foray into the RSS world is clearly a threat to upstart RSS reader companies. Schare says Microsoft's technology will eliminate the "heavy lifting," so those other companies can focus on improvements that matter more to customers. But Gartenberg sees this is as the natural evolution of the technology, one that will reshape the current market. "A couple of years from now, [readers] are going to be a commodity item," he says.

Indeed, Microsoft isn't alone here. Yahoo! (YHOO) and Apple (AAPL) are already providing RSS readers as well. And with those sorts of companies in the business, Gartenberg doubts that Microsoft can use its Windows monopoly to engulf and devour the RSS world. "It's not likely that Microsoft will be the be-all and end-all of RSS application," he says.

But Microsoft's mere presence in the market will do one thing that all the other companies combined haven't been able to achieve yet: It will make RSS mainstream technology.

Greene is BusinessWeek's bureau manager in Seattle

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