How I almost invented RSS

Dave Winer, who’s known, in spite of his wishes, as the inventor of RSS, wrote about the myth of the sole inventor, a topic I spend an entire chapter exploring in The Myths of Innovation (Chapter 5: The Lone Inventor).

Winer explains he didn’t invent RSS alone – there were too many contributions to name anyone, including himself, as “the inventor”.

This is refreshingly honest. When an idea succeeds there are often dozens of people claiming to be its parent (See my review of The Social Network). And for the media it’s a stronger story to mention someone as “the inventor of”, however inaccurate it might be, than to say “one of the inventors of” or “someone who contributed to the invention of”. Everyone’s ego benefits from these consolidations of credit so they grow in popularity regardless of their substance.

As evidence of Winer’s point: I worked on a project similar to RSS years before the name RSS was coined. I’d never say I actually invented RSS, instead I’m one of many supporting stories of Winer’s point.

Working on IE4 in 1996 we created an XML based standards proposal called Web Collections, and submitted a draft to the W3C in March 1997.  We even shipped a feature that used it in IE 4.0 beta 1, called Sitemaps, which led to a U.S. patent. The motivation was we realized browsers were dumb and wanted websites to have a smart way to tell browsers about how pages were organized or updated.

Sounds impressive perhaps. But at the time few people cared. Even now, clearly, few people care :)

Moreso, Castedo Ellerman, a colleague working on another IE4 project called Channels, submitted a similar use of XML, called CDF, a few days later as part of our push technology offerings.

Netscape followed close behind with MCF in June of 1997 (It’s possible they submitted something to the W3C earlier, but I couldn’t find it. Hotsauce, the Apple based metadata system they more or less acquired existed earlier but not in a standard based form – if you have a more accurate history please share).

Yet Wikipedia’s history on this matter starts in 1999 – Here’s their history of RSS:

RDF Site Summary, the first version of RSS, was created by Guha at Netscape in March 1999 for use on the My.Netscape.Com portal. This version became known as RSS 0.9.[4] In July 1999, Dan Libby of Netscape produced a new version, RSS 0.91,[2] which simplified the format by removing RDF elements and incorporating elements from Dave Winer‘s ScriptingNews syndication format.[7] Libby also renamed RSS “Rich Site Summary” and outlined further development of the format in a “futures document”.[8]

At the time Netscape’s RDF was a competing proposed standard with Microsoft’s CDF. It was at the peak of the browser war, and there were many competiting ways to do things on the web offered by both companies.

Why are Web collections and CDF omitted? The reasons are simple:

  1. The line for when an idea begins is arbitrary. All ideas are made from other ideas. When precisely an idea becomes it’s own concept is not a matter of science but opinion. This is a matter of convenience. It would take pages of names and ideas to comprehensively identify everyone who pursued any idea, and to sort out which of them were influenced by what work others were doing.
  2. MSFT abandoned the ideas. The GM of IE 4.0 cut the sitemap feature, the only real use of web collections. And CDF was known mostly for the ill-fated Channels feature, part of the push technology (which Wired proclaimed would end web-browsing altogether). The uses of these proposed standards  faded – and standards only thrive if they are manifested in software people use. Netscape’s standard lived on in code.
  3. No one has spoken up to offer other pieces of history further upstream. Winer mentions CDF and Microsoft, but not Web Collections.

But this is not an unusual story – the complexity of origins, competitive approaches to a similar idea, and failures of acknowledgment or comprehensiveness is the norm. It’s just inconvenient to take a close look at the origins of things, so mostly we never know. Read up on the invention of airplanes, light bulbs or anything and you’ll make similar patterns of discovery.

Of course I didn’t invent RSS. But I did work on something that influenced what did happen. Such is the life of people with ideas.

[Post updated 2/4/13: In the tragic story of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, he’s often referred to as the inventor of RSS. Alternatively Wikipedia offers “he was involved in the development”.]

[Post updated 2/4/13: Typos fixed and edits of concision]

9 Responses to “How I almost invented RSS”

  1. Charlie Knudsen

    I think this type of thinking is why a lot of people don’t like software patents. Given certain problems there are only so many logical solutions, and we are all standing on the shoulders of giants.

  2. Scott Berkun


    It’s a problem for all patents, software or otherwise. Dig up the history of the lightbulb and you’ll find a complex network of ideas, firsts, seconds, influences, conflicts and paradoxes. Ideas simply don’t move in simple ways.

  3. Baron

    This also points to the fact that some similar things take off, and others are relative laggards.

    The Facebook idea was around for a long time with many variations in different sites. Some of them were pretty good.

    But Facebook took off because of that other aspect of innovation, the myriad and uncontrollable variables embedded in the ecology.

    Simply having and implementing great ideas is not enough. You must also fill a propitious niche in the ecology. In my observation, this happens as much by chance as by planning.

  4. Elisabeth Bucci

    Is there anything stopping you from adding your part of the story to Wikipedia?
    Don’t you think it would make Wikipedia better?

  5. Adam Monago

    I think this story becomes more relevant on a daily basis. IMO, one of the most powerful things about the Web has been that it has accelerated the rate and scale of improvement of ideas, and at the same time vastly complicating the story of who invented what. Is it the technology, or the interaction pattern surrounding it, or the passion of a particular community in supporting it that counts most in terms of ‘Innovation’? I would argue they are all important.

    Great post. Thank you Scott.

  6. Susanne Dansey

    I love this post as it starts to explore the pain some people put themselves unnecessarily through when they discover their idea is already out there.

    What’s great here is that whilst you worked on the concept, you also went on to do many other things to benefit you and those who connected with you.

    This ‘team Spartacus’ approach makes much more sense in a world where we don’t acknowledge people like the second guy on the moon or Edward Somerset who invented a machine that anticipated the age of steam power by almost two centuries. In fact, who cares? As long as our ideas contribute to better ideas we should be able to enjoy the processes and various outcomes.

  7. Academic

    Perhaps this is ultimately a question of individualism and ego vs utilitarianism and selflessness



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