When Apple unveiled the News app in the WWDC keynote on Monday, my first reaction was glee. As a past participant in its Newsstand experiment, which is probably the best way to describe it, the News app had several characteristics that made it seem far superior for many purposes.
By the evening, though, gloom had set in. The News app looks more like yet another push news service — the latest incarnation of PointCast for those with long memories — that delivers what the product's producer thinks is valuable to you rather than what you necessarily want. It's sophisticated, but takes choice out of readers' hands.
If a user can't choose any news source, whether a blog updated yearly and read by 10 people or a multinational media conglomerate's river of articles, I believe it's doomed to fall by the wayside. When presented with curation and choice, only a subset of people, the least avid, choose a walled garden unless the benefit is truly remarkable.
Apple's choices will shape how expansive News is — how porous the wall and how easy to scale it.
Not the second coming of RSS
RSS, a syndication format for news and blog items, arose out of the ashes of push technology in the 1990s. The idea behind push was that in an era of low-throughput broadband, slowly trickling in news headlines, stock prices, and other data to computers in the background would allow people to be up to date, and have a high value to advertisers, as it would capture attention.
The trouble was that push was too popular. By 1997, there were a dozen or more popular companies creating push products for consumers and businesses. By 1999, the approach was nearly dead for a few interrelated reasons.
First, early push was one-to-one, flooding the narrow-diameter pipes of companies by sending the same data to dozens or thousands of computers. (Companies later introduced server software, often free, that could take a single feed and broadcast it within a company's network, but too late.)
Second, none of the general push networks offered enough choice. As web publications exploded in the late 1990s, a tightly curated feed of partner networks wasn't enough.
Third, as throughput expanded in companies and households, people preferred access to the whole web, which is where RSS came in. RSS was a reworking and expansion of Netscape's Channel Definition Format, one of the standards use for push. But RSS had no central server architecture or company that controlled it after some early jockeying about development and direction. (Aaron Swartz is often incorrectly credited as co-creating RSS; he was on a committee that developed a variant standard that became little used.)
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