Consumer RSS: 1999-2010

paidContent made an interesting connection about Bloglines being shut down and the broader question of RSS in the age of Twitter.

Indeed, in its announcement, Bloglines similarly blames broader trends for its demise, saying, “As Steve Gillmor pointed out inTechCrunch last year, being locked in an RSS reader makes less and less sense to people as Twitter and Facebook dominate real-time information flow. Today RSS is the enabling technology – the infrastructure, the delivery system. RSS is a means to an end, not a consumer experience in and of itself. As a result, RSS aggregator usage has slowed significantly, and Bloglines isn’t the only service to feel the impact. The writing is on the wall.”

A month before Steve published his post I wrote a post that remains one of the most popular pieces I have written to date.

Twitter provides publishers with several key advantages over RSS, namely the ability to control brand and force traffic back to their monetized site. Of course none of this precludes them from also using RSS to distribute content and there are equally compelling reasons for doing so but if I were to make a prediction it would be that publishers increasingly find primary utility for RSS in the backoffice while de-empathizing RSS for audience acquisition, in the process embracing Twitter as a mechanism for engaging an audience and promoting content at the same time.

The issue isn’t Twitter and RSS but rather consumer RSS applications have remained for the most part locked in a paradigm that turns out to not be very useful for anyone but a small segment of the market. RSS is at it’s core plumbing and it will remain a key technology for the foreseeable future but the way that people find, collect, and consume content is changing and RSS has diminishing importance because of what it doesn’t enable for the people who create content… any monetization of content, brand control, traffic funneling, and audience acquisition.

This is not to say that some very innovative applications are not being built on top of RSS, like Feedly and Newser, but in both cases the subject of RSS takes the back burner to user experience, presentation, and social layer. Simply put, there is no market for RSS.

Feedly Adds Topic Exploration

Feedly is one of my favorite services, not only does it offer a highly polished presentation layer that makes reading my subscriptions more pleasing but it has a nice set of social features for sharing content and with their latest release a really compelling set of search and topic exploration features.

If you have been reading my stuff over the last few years you will know that one of my big criticisms of existing feed readers and content services is that they are very good at presenting sources that you already know exist, very poor at finding the best content, not just the most popular, for any given category or topic.

Feedly has now moved into content discovery in a major way, leveraging their substantial installed base and ability to capture and analyze metadata related to content sources and individual posts. As much as I liked this service before, I love it now…

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Building Feedly, An Altnerative Approach

There is something really important in this post on the Feedly blog about how they launched their company and approach to building out the product. Along with the succinct description of what it means to develop and launch a product using an agile process is the indictment of the stealth-and-hype approach startups have embraced in years past as a calling card for venture capital.

The benefit of this approach is that you put the customer and your metrics at the center of your development process: as a result you get constant feedback and can use that feedback to both improve the idea/positioning and the product. It will also help you iterate and add a lot more polish to the product. Finally, it will help you have a core user community and measurable understanding of their behavior – something which is really important if you are interested in raising VC money.

[From An Alternative to the TechCrunch 50 Model « Building Feedly]

In a nutshell the VC industry is in a bind of epic proportions right now as institutional money, the bulk of money invested in VC funds, is deciding to sit this one out and M&A and IPO activity is trending to zero for the foreseeable future which has the effect of dramatically reducing any opportunity to generate returns for active funds.

Perhaps more significantly, venture capital is on average a 9-10% return as an asset class which means that putting your money in venture funds is no better or worse than what you would have earned on real estate, equities, or any other of a number of different investment options. Venture capital is a cottage industry built on the perception of outsized returns that very few funds actually deliver. I have spoken with a frightening number of individuals, who are LPs in name brand funds, who are questioning the point of funding their capital call commitments, which in effect is capitulating on venture capital in general because defaulting have consequences beyond future investments.

The holy grail of venture capital is the “10 bagger”, also known as the “home run”, and for good reason because venture funds simply can’t survive on a steady diet of singles and doubles because the losses accumulate over time to wipe out anything other than monster gains. Entrepreneurs essentially understand this and have crafted, although not always with deliberate care but rather intuition, a startup process that swings for the fences. This momentum based approach, as in “getting the flywheel spinning” and all other manner of creative metaphors, is designed to catapult a promising startup into the consciousness of potential investors and acquirers, which has the effect of depriving potential competitors, large and small, of the oxygen their require to establish a base in the marketplace.

Furthermore, by being in the rarified air that white hot startups reside in, investors tend to overlook shortcomings and deficiencies by overweighting marketplace momentum and using this as evidence that “it’s the team that matters” in their investment review process. The competitive dimension among investors comes into play here as hot startups benefit from the fear that a competing investor will be first with a term sheet, offer a better deal, or promise a more prestigious syndicate.

Interestingly what has happened in recent years is that by tailoring the startup launch process to investors and the Valley echo chamber what startups, and their advisors, have done is raise the bar to levels that are almost impossible to achieve. Saddled with institutional attention deficit disorder (IADD) the typical Valley pundit and investor is on to the next shiny new thing before any real and meaningful growth is achieved.

It’s a cliche to suggest we need to get back to basics but essentially that is what Feedly is documenting, an approach that values focus on customer experience first and uses that to lever up interest among the various constituencies that startups often court first. Yes it is stating the obvious but sometimes we all need to be reminded of the obvious.

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Acrylic Times RSS Client

I think I wrote something about this application last year. Acrylic Times is a very slick RSS client application that faces huge challenges in spite of being a beautifully designed application.

1) It’s a license in an era when people have an expectation of free.

2) The RSS client market is not growing and it’s not that big to begin with. RSS client apps (hosted or installed) tend to appeal to a very niche market (tech centric, high income/education, male) despite being available as mature product offerings for many years. RSS as a product/technology name is a significant barrier in itself, hell you might as well call these apps “cancer” because for the mass market it’s just as appealing.

3) The fundamental weakness in the user experience is that you have to proactively manage content sources. This is a huge turnoff for me because my OPML file is a mess and I just don’t want to take the extra steps to subscribe to content sources I find on my own…

Nobody is doing content discovery at the source level really well, but balancing content relevancy to user behavior within defined sources is coming along nicely. One of the most exciting apps in this regard is Feedly, I absolutely love what Edwin and team are doing but I don’t think of that as an RSS app… it’s an application that takes advantage of RSS for content but RSS is just one content source.

Another example of this is the PostRank Twitter Newsroom, which builds on extensive experience measuring RSS feeds and applies the same ranking mechanism to twitter streams. This is just one more example of how broadcast content is converging with social recommendation. The next frontier is bringing email into the mix with web intelligence derived from social networks and content.

At any rate, check out Times and give it a test drive.

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Chrome Not Yet a Platform

This is perhaps the biggest exposed flank that Google has with Chrome:

Extensions could be a critical weakness. Google doesn’t have a great track record for bringing out the community to participate in its projects, and without the extensive plug-in catalog that Firefox has collected, Chrome won’t displace it.

[From Chrome: Nice, But Not a “Killer” Browser Just Yet - GigaOM]

Platforms are declared all the time, but it is only in the few that we see legitimate community supported platforms as evidenced by extensive third party add-ons and extensions. Firefox is just such a platform.

In the end it may matter little to the mass market because while I don’t have any statistics on the rate of extension/plug-in uptake in firefox, I can’t imagine it’s a large percentage of the overall user base. But that number could in fact be significant and just as the act of downloading and installing a new browser did not dramatically limit Firefox, the act of extending Firefox with a plug in may be more common than I am allowing and in that case Google will have a challenge if they are interoperating with Firefox extensions.

I won’t switch to Safari even though it is faster than Firefox by a wide margin because I can’t take my extensions and plug-ins with me. Here’s my list of must-have extensions and plug ins:

  • Feedly
  • Session Manager
  • Better Gmail 2
  • Google Notebook
  • Flip4Mac and Quicktime
  • Silverlight

I am also using a really neat extension from Outwit to extract data from web pages, like HTML tables into Excel, links and feeds, and source code.