TECH TALK: The Future of Search: Subscriptions

Subscriptions define our interests. We need to make a conscious decision to subscribe to something be it a newspaper or magazine, or an emailing list, or even a social group (in the physical world). When we add a buddy into our IM list, we are subscribing to chat with each other. Because we need to be pro-active about subscribing to something, there is an inherent decision that we are making about our likes.

Subscriptions by themselves are not new. Email newsletters and newsgroups have existed since the early days of the Internet. Push, as pioneered by Pointcast, was once seen as a major breakthrough technology. After many false starts, the world of subscriptions is now coming into its own. Among the enabling factors have been the acceptance of RSS as a format for syndication (and subscription), the emergence of user-generated content via blogs which has a narrow field of interest, and the growth of RSS aggregators for viewing these niche content sources.

Kevin Laws wrote about RSS:

Unlike the original push towards push technology, the open RSS standard is already widely adopted. As with the web, this may allow a variety of interesting capabilities which extend RSS capabilities in different directions.

One direction relates to automating tasks for you. This is basically the return of agent technology. Now that a wider variety of web sites are available in machine readable format, it should be possible to tell your computer things like “tell me when an article about gnosticism appears”. While this is similar to the stored searches on Google, the fact that RSS aggregators are closer to real-time makes this more valuable. The best analogy is “Tivo for the Web” – specify web sites to definitely “record” and the agent can also record a selection of potentially interesting web posts.

Another direction is enterprise use for RSS. Imagine replacing Microsoft Exchange with an interlocking array of RSS feeds. Each user with Outlook receives their shared calendar, contacts, and other information from subscriptions to RSS feeds. Or they become contributors, sharing one of their calendars with others. I’m sure reading that sentence inspires a host of potential objections for why RSS can not do that. Yet.

Steve Gillmor wrote about how RSS and attention coalesce together:

What if[we] shift to another architecturesay one that supports lightweight routing of XML fragments around the network in a highly accelerated virtualized kind of digital dial tone infrastructure? Lets call it RSS, flowing through an attention-based inforouter.

In this alternate universe, user interfaces would be plastic in nature, morphing as data types trigger template switching that routes packets of information through transformation engines based on metadata-driven signals. Charting services are overlaid with ticker text treatments, then piped to handheld devices as a stream, and cached on terminal screens to be called up on demand. Color-coded expert opinions are syndicated to executive information feeds to provide real-time “gut decisions” from consultants and rating data from affinity groups.

on Planet RSS, the data is transformed through a pipeline of services for delivery to the endpoint renderer. Attention-based preemptive caching reduces latency in bandwidth-constrained or offline scenarios. Its the virtual rich client, the Really Smart Server.

RSS is the HTML of tomorrow, and Subscriptions will be the Search of tomorrow. RSS is reaching a tipping point and making its way beyond the early adopters. The potential of RSS goes way beyond just reading blogs it is a fundamentally different way to consume information. For example, I have subscriptions to over 200 RSS feeds now. When I came across a new source of information that I like, I simply add it to my Aggregator. When that source is updated, my Aggregator notifies me much like an email folder announces new mail. The challenge now becomes that even tracking 200 feeds is becoming difficult and so the interface needs to change. Even as Search is the window to the Reference Web, the Aggregator is becoming the window to the Incremental Web.

Tomorrow: Tags

TECH TALK The Future of Search+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.