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Why Do FireFox and Google Subtly Default to Atom Feeds?
Ed Kohler

I was subscribing to a few new blogs this evening when I noticed something strange with the way FireFox together with Google handled the subscription options. Rather than giving me the option of subscribing to the RSS 2.0, RSS 0.92, or Atom 0.3 feed, the only option displayed was the Atom feed.

Here is an example site where I'm seeing this.

Gabe's Blog On Flickr

When I click the RSS icon in the address bar, here is what I see:

Only Given an Atom 0.3 Option

Only one option: Atom 0.3.

Clicking that option brings me to my Add to Google page where I can add the site to my Google Reader.

Add to Google

What's strange about this to me is Gabe's blog publishes three feed options with Atom 0.3 being the third choice.

Source Code RSS Options

Yet only the Atom feed was displayed as an option.

I do have Google selected as my default choice for RSS subscriptions within Firefox. Is that what causes this?

This reminded me of Dave Winer's post from earlier this week about his dislike of Google owning FeedBurner. He sees this as a case of over-concentration of power:

Why Feedburner is trouble (Scripting News)

So now someone at Google "owns" Feedburner and all their feeds. And they could, if they wanted to, change the feeds to another format, overnight, without asking anyone. Reader software might have trouble working with it. They would say "Oh but the new feeds work better with Google Reader, and that's the one most people use." And by the way, more and more that's true these days. But what about other feed suppliers? Do they have to change to work with Google Reader? They will say no, but there may turn out to be practical reasons why they must.

Could this be a case where Google, together with FireFox, are subtly steering people toward Atom 0.3 feeds in order to create a de facto standard?

Do you have any other theories on why my FireFox browser is limiting my RSS options?




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Comments

1. Posted by: MKR on July 29, 2007 8:31 AM:

It only does that if an atom feed is available. Try saving the page, commenting out the atom line, then loading it. It will offer the RSS feed instead.




2. Posted by: MKR on July 29, 2007 8:37 AM:

I wasn't too clear with that, was I? :P

It only offers the 2.0 feed, not the .92 feed. I think it just offers what it's configured to consider the "best"




3. Posted by: Brendan on July 29, 2007 7:30 PM:

Google probably use whatever RSS format works best with their reader engine. Personally I tend to gravitate towards Atom feeds as it is..

If it's an issue, do *not* set Google Reader as your default (use 'show me a preview..' option) then you can subscribe to whatever feed you want, as it will be presented under the RSS icon.

Comes down to personal preference, really.




4. Posted by: Ed Kohler on July 29, 2007 8:46 PM:

It sounds like this plays to Winer's fears that Google is in a position to use it's power to influence what's a standard when it comes to syndication.




5. Posted by: Brendan on July 30, 2007 12:32 AM:

Personally? Winer is pretty hit and miss when he steps down a notch to write FUD. And his piece is FUD, sorry.

Google allows most RSS formats and that's not likely to change for a while. It may have a preference, but that's hardly the same as a mandate.

And really, given then length of time and the number of formats available - the odds one will rise to 'standard' before something new comes along, is highly remote.




6. Posted by: Dan M. on July 30, 2007 2:32 PM:

I'm pretty sure it's just a coincidence due to alphabetical order ("Atom" comes before "RSS") and the way Firefox searches for links to feeds in HTML source.




7. Posted by: Jason Lefkowitz on July 30, 2007 2:59 PM:

"Could this be a case where Google, together with FireFox, are subtly steering people toward Atom 0.3 feeds in order to create a de facto standard?"

Atom is not a "de facto" standard. It is a de jure standard -- which is to say, a real honest to gosh standard. It's been through a standardization process organized by an international standards body and there is an RFC that describes exactly what an Atom feed is and how you should parse it.

RSS is only "standard" in the sense that there are lots of people using various flavors of XML that claim to be RSS. There isn't even agreement as to who "owns" RSS 2.0 -- Dave says he does, and the RSS Working Group says they do. Now there are 2 versions of the same "standard" floating around.




8. Posted by: bc on July 30, 2007 3:12 PM:

No conspiracy theories necessary. Why not become a member of the community, look in bugzilla, the wikis etc and contribute instead of spreading fud?

See bug 309072 and the referenced links.




9. Posted by: Jeremy on July 30, 2007 6:11 PM:

I can't find anything on the Mozilla Wiki that is up to date on this matter, but it is clear that the Mozilla community has decided that if multiple feed formats are supplied for the same content, the Atom feed should be used. I presume it is because those concerned consider it to be the superior format.

A few lines from the relevant Firefox 2.0.0.5 source code (see ./mozilla/browser/base/content/browser.js in http://releases.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla.org/firefox/releases/2.0.0.5/source/firefox-2.0.0.5-source.tar.bz2):
/**
* Attempt to generate a list of unique feeds from the list of feeds
* supplied by the web page. It is fairly common for a site to supply
* feeds in multiple formats but with divergent |title| attributes so
* we need to make a rough pass at trying to not show a menu when there
* is in fact only one feed. If this is the case, by default select
* the ATOM feed if one is supplied, otherwise pick the first one.
...

It appears that for the time being the Mozilla team has removed this 'cleverness', since the code was generating false positives (i.e., it was hiding feeds that had unique content). See: https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=309085




10. Posted by: Jeremy on July 30, 2007 7:59 PM:

To be clear, this has nothing to do with your choice to use Google's feed reader.




11. Posted by: JC on June 22, 2008 8:48 PM:

I can see the point, though. People's crappy blogs look WAY more interesting when the content is delivered with Atom instead of RSS. I mean, the difference is astounding. Keep it RSS baby, rage against the Atom domination! We don't want none of that! Or something. Duh.




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