Oh My! Netscape

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Rael Dornfest

Rael Dornfest
Apr. 26, 2001 09:37 AM

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My.Netscape, a personal portal sporting hundreds of channels carrying content from individual providers, has shed its free content and become YAM*, Yet Another My.*. In the process, they also broke RSS 0.91.

A little background

When introduced in 1999, the "My" concept itself wasn't anything earth-shattering; after all, My* (semi-) customizable, personal portals were all the rage. What was unique about My Nescape was its content-gathering mechanism. Rather than simply carry the standard for-fee fare, Netscape created a channel description framework called RSS ("RDF Site Summary") which allowed individual content providers to syndicate snapshots of their latest offerings to the portal.

By providing a simple snapshot-in-a-document, web site producers acquired audience through the presence of their content on My Netscape. End-users got one-stop-reading, a centralized location into which content from their favorite web sites flowed, rather than just the sanitized streams of content syndicated into most portals. And My Netscape, of course, acquired content for free. [RSS: Lightweight Web Syndication]

The original version of RSS, 0.9, was based on RDF ("Resource Description Framework"), a framework for describing and relating resources on the Web. This was followed shortly by RSS 0.91, re-dubbed "Rich Site Summary," which had dropped its RDF roots and was instead described by a static DTD at http://my.netscape.com/publish/formats/rss-0.91.dtd. Don't bother wandering over there though -- I'll explain why in a second.

Over time, folks started using RSS as a method for general metadata and content syndication. As its use increased, so did its application broaden. But the format itself remained unchanged, locked into its static DTD and apparent disinterest by Netscape. Its semantics began being overloaded, title and description elements being stuffed chock full of dates, author information, and ad-hoc extensions began cropping up. Extending RSS became a subject of much debate, resulting in an eventual fork. The technical point of contention was over a larger flat-file core with centralized iterative extension versus a decentralized relational / modular framework. But that's a story of another time.

With the fizzling and eventual acquisition of Netscape, the My.Netscape portal atrophied; down-time, stale content, and broken links foretold of its imminent demise. Recently revamped and turned into a My.Yahoo!-alike, its distinctive framework and catalog of associated channels have been taken offline.

In the decommissioning process they broke RSS 0.91.

RSS 0.91's reliance upon a DTD living on my.netscape.com has long been an irritant. The site's staccato reachability caused some consumers of 0.91 to turn to non-validating XML parsers so as to still have access to RSS feeds even when the DTD was unavailable. Many did not.

Matt Sergeant and Edd Dumbill today noted the complete removal of any trace of RSS, including the 0.91 DTD itself from the Web. Wrote Dumbill in a posting to the RSS-DEV mailing list:

This breaks all RSS 0.91 feeds that are processed by a validating XML parser and that reference the DTD, ie. huge numbers.
It presents us with several problems:
* has anyone got a cached copy
-- and --
* the DTD is (C) Netscape if I remember so hosting a cached copy is likely to be a violation of that copyright.
Failing any resolution the best things seem to be:

* short term, remove the DTD decl
* quick-as-you-can, move to a standard that doesn't rely on DTDs, ie. RSS 1.0.

RSS partisanship aside, this episode strikes yet another blow against the use of centralized (specifically copyright) DTDs in an increasingly distributed computing environment.

Rael Dornfest is Founder and CEO of Portland, Oregon-based Values of n. Rael leads the Values of n charge with passion, unearthly creativity, and a repertoire of puns and jokes — some of which are actually good. Prior to founding Values of n, he was O'Reilly's Chief Technical Officer, program chair for the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference (which he continues to chair), series editor of the bestselling Hacks book series, and instigator of O'Reilly's Rough Cuts early access program. He built Meerkat, the first web-based feed aggregator, was champion and co-author of the RSS 1.0 specification, and has written and contributed to six O'Reilly books. Rael's programmatic pride and joy is the nimble, open source blogging application Blosxom, the principles of which you'll find in the Values of n philosophy and embodied in Stikkit: Little yellow notes that think.