What happens when nobody will take responsibility for a standard that the web relies on?
RSS, the standard millions of us use to syndicate content, and view other people’s syndicated content, was originally invented by Ramanathan Guha at Netscape, for use on its my.netscape.com portal. Soon afterwards, Netscape lost interest in the format, leaving it ownerless and later on picked up by a development community spearheaded by UserLand Software.RSS 0.91 became 1.0 and 2.0, yet despite the deprecation of the grandaddy of them all 0.91 is still around and in use, arguably because of the vast overcomplications in its immediate successor and the divisions that it caused in the community.
The problem with that is as follows. Every time someone views an RSS 0.91 syndication feed with certain types of syndication software, their computer attempts to get the DTD from this location on the my.netscape portal—it’s hardcoded into the way that the software understands what XML format it’s dealing with. So this URL gets plenty of hits:
Which is great, until Netscape decide—legitimately, one might argue—to update the my.netscape portal and get rid of the DTD. Which they did, at the start of the year. At that point, a good portion of the syndication lights go out across the world. And although we now have a moratorium until July 2007, nothing has really been solved in the long run.
Anyway, Netscape shouldn’t have to support the bandwidth of millions of DTD downloads for a standard they declared defunct—when did they sign the don’t-be-evil contract?—and maybe people should “just” move to a newer version of RSS, or Atom. But this whole episode is an Ozymandian warning of what is to come. We’ve reached the point where the URLs of industry (one-time) giants are simply no longer to be trusted as the location of standards.
One day Microsoft, and Sun, and IBM, will cease to exist, and their websites become the 22nd century equivalent of Google-adsensed search engines (Google, of course, will be around forever, more’s the pity). Sooner or later something really horrible will happen for the open communities, say Purl disappearing for good, taking things like the Dublin Core XML specification with it. We need to know how to deal with the loss of their specifications and standards now: the unreliability of the URL as a locator for DTDs and schemata. Or is the only lesson we can draw from history, that we’re destined to wander from standard to standard as the specifications drop off the radar, leading the nomadic life of those standardized today, obsolete tomorrow?