has committed numerous blunders in its introduction of Windows XP, the
next generation of the Windows operating system — and these blunders have
happened months before the official release of Windows XP on October 25.
Consider recent events:
It is hard to keep
up with this barrage of news about Microsoft in general and Windows XP
in particular. But many people who casually follow the debate may uncritically
conclude that bad-boy Microsoft is up to its old tricks, imposing a new
mechanism to buttress its monopoly power.
Critics charge that
Windows XP moves even more functionality into the operating system that
they say belongs at the applications layer. Examples include voice recognition,
IP telephony, and tools for manipulating digital photographs (and ordering
prints from commercial providers). These critics claims that such bundling
is the kind of behavior that led to the antitrust suit. A U.S. Senate subcommittee
will hold hearings to explore monopolistic aspects of Windows XP.
Corporate IT managers
complain that the new pricing models for Windows XP and the Office XP suite
can cause license fees to skyrocket, in some cases by a factor of 10.
Office XP and Windows
XP incorporate technology that attempts to defeat software piracy. The
software constantly monitors a PC's components and, after a significant
hardware change, requires the user to "reactivate" the software by contacting
Microsoft. One reporter for ZDnet had the demand for activation fire up
while he was at 30,000 feet, flying to a PC conference. He had made no
The Windows XP Preview
Program has experienced glitches, with download passwords e-mailed to the
wrong people and delays in shipping out preview CDs.
On July 11 in response
to a U.S. court ruling, Microsoft agreed to allow computer vendors to remove
Start button entries for Internet Explorer in Windows XP.
The Smart Tags technology
in Windows XP has come under editorial fire, first by Wall Street Journalcolumnist
Walter Mossberg, later by other influential writers, such as Dan Gillmor
of the San Jose Mercury News. On June 28th — the same day the U.S.
Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on the antitrust action
— Microsoft announced that Smart Tags would
not be provided in the
shipping version of Windows XP.
Is it possible
that a bandwagon effect has wrongly maligned Smart Tags, hindering or ending
its integration into Internet Explorer? In this column, we will examine
what Smart Tags are, how they are used in Office XP and Windows XP, and
how information industry vendors are integrating Smart Tags into their
products. We'll also examine the potential utility of Smart Tags.
Office XP was launched
on June 1. It incorporates numerous new features, many of them based on
XML technology, as well as built-in speech recognition. The Smart Tags
feature provides a new kind of hyperlink, one that is automatically inserted
when one is composing or viewing a document. For instance, if a user has
enabled Smart Tags in Word and types in a person's name, a Smart Tag will
appear, denoted as a purplish dotted underscore.
A user can then
mouse over to the Smart Tag, and a small "i" icon will appear next to the
item tagged. The user can click on the icon and view a series of links
to follow. The links might include a user's own address book in MS-Outlook,
an online people directory, or any of a variety of Smart Tag sources from
third parties. For instance, a subscriber to LexisNexis might follow a
Smart Tag link to perform a news search about a given person.
In order for third-party
Smart Tags to function, the user must download and install software prepared
by the information vendor. For instance, LexisNexis has three Smart Tags
packages — for a person's name, for a legal case name, or for an address.
A user would download any or all of these and install them once. After
enabling the relevant Smart Tag in an Office application, the "recognizer"
software — essentially an add-on to automatic grammar checking — will look
for items that should be tagged and insert the tags on the fly.
A user can turn
Smart Tags on and off, just as they can with spelling or grammar correction
features. If turned off globally, no Smart Tags appear on screen or are
inserted into the document. The user can also specify which proprietary
smart tags to enable.
Dozens of vendors
worked with Microsoft before the launch of Office XP to build Smart Tags
— including Westlaw, LexisNexis, United Parcel Service, ESPN, Reuters,
ProQuest, etc. In some cases their applications may be rather broad; for
instance, one could type a name and address into a document and see the
UPS Smart Tag for ordering a truck to pick up a package or print a bar-coded
shipping label. Other applications, such as legal case names, might target
more limited audiences. For licensed databases such as LexisNexis, the
user would either need an existing account, or, where content providers
choose, a user might pay by the sip for occasional searches.
Tags employ XML markup. An item on the Tools/Options menu allows saving
a document that contains internal Smart Tags as HTML when the page is saved
in HTML format. Here is an example:
LexisNexisProductID="The Supreme Court decided the case of The
New York Times v. Tasini.">
The Supreme Court decided the case of The <st6:XanEdu-Strategic-Management-Topic>
<st2:casename LexisNexisProductID="Roe v. Wade">
v. <st3:players PlayerID="5498">
a Developer's Kit for creating Smart Tags. Third-party development tools
are beginning to appear.
In the case of
Windows XP, the concern raised by Mossberg applied to the application of
Smart Tags in Internet Explorer. He argued that, in effect, Microsoft gets
to choose the meaning of the new hyperlinks — what words link to what sites.
Indeed, this presents another opportunity for Microsoft to determine which
content providers — including itself, for instance via MSN — are used to
satisfy which queries. The concern is certainly valid, given Microsoft's
monopoly status in operating systems, Web browsing, and office software.
But the argument ignores the possibility of using Smart Tags from third
parties to satisfy very specific purposes that meet the needs of users.
Much of the firestorm
of controversy surrounding Smart Tags may be "inside baseball." At the
June 2001 SLA conference in San Antonio, I visited many booths at the trade
show, asking representatives about the just-introduced Office XP and how
its company planned on using Smart Tags. The vast majority of representatives
from some of the leading players in the information industry had never
heard of Smart Tags. A notable exception was West Group, which was demonstrating
Smart Tags in Westlaw at its booth — and giving out demo versions of Office
XP to attendees who expressed interest. West had previously offered auto-insertion
of hyperlinks under its WestCiteLink product. Now, with Smart Tags, auto-insertion
is effectively on the fly.
Some firms are
watching the evolution of Smart Tags in the marketplace before adopting
the technology. Barbara Colton, vice president for Business Development
at the Institute for Scientific Information, said that though ISI is not
currently exploiting Smart Tags, the company's technology group is looking
at the technology. ISI products such as ResearchSoft also have auto-hyperlink
features, so a "cite while you write" feature using Smart Tags could evolve.
supporter of SmartTags is XanEdu, the division of ProQuest that markets
products to the higher-education community. Lew Gossage, a senior vice
president and general manager of XanEdu, says his developers worked with
Microsoft to develop Smart Tag identifiers totaling 32,000 topic trees
for its digital textbook collection. XanEdu's goal is to enable students
to look up online references while composing new term papers or while browsing
existing documents. "We want to be able to help people find Ernest Hemingway,
not Mariel Hemingway, as appropriate," he says. "We also want to connect
people to multiple sources. If a student types 'monetary policy' they could
look up business, economics, or finance resources."
that Smart Tags are a "great addition to electronic coursepacks." Students
can follow references in every part of the coursepack, in effect, having
relevant hyperlinks added with no effort by the professor. Unfortunately,
though, if Microsoft follows through with its announced plans to remove
Smart Tags from Windows XP, the functionality will not be available for
students using a Web browser to read materials as they work on term papers.
Smart Tags may
prove most useful to individuals in target audiences who do highly detailed
or repetitious work. For instance, National Oilwell, an oil drilling equipment
company, is using Smart Tags to streamline its process of responding to
RFPs. General users may find Smart Tags annoying, as the tags tend to clutter
a page, especially a Web page or document already laden with numerous hyperlinks.
General and specialized
users may also find that Smart Tags, at least at the current state of the
art, have lots of room for improvement. For instance, when we tested Lexis
Smart Tags, it recognized "Roe v. Wade," but not "Roe vs. Wade." A sentence
referring to "Stanford, Duke, and Michigan State University" has only the
spelled-out university name recognized. The ESPN baseball Smart Tag didn't
offer a link to Cal Ripken. The general purpose Smart Tags in beta Internet
Explorer 6 offers few Smart Tags worth following.
So critics remain.
I spoke with the chief technology officer of an international information
industry player. He criticized Smart Tags as a proprietary technology,
which, when considered in light of Microsoft's onerous pricing models for
XP, was simply unacceptable for his company. He sees Smart Tags as an abuse
of the open philosophy of XML. His company intends to leave Windows 2000
and Office 2000 on corporate desktops and to evaluate alternatives such
as Linux and StarOffice.
On the Other Hand
Lost in the shuffle
may be these important points:
It would be a shame
if the negative publicity from Mossberg and those who followed him on Smart
Tags in Windows XP were to overshadow useful applications of Smart Tags
in Office applications.
Smart Tags can be
enabled or disabled as the user desires in MS-Office applications and in
Internet Explorer 6.
Microsoft has retreated
on Smart Tags in Windows XP. It has not withdrawn Smart Tags in Office
XP, nor has it stated that future versions of Internet Explorer or Windows
XP will be free of Smart Tags.
The set of third-party
Smart Tags recognizers and handlers is under the user's control.
Any third party can
create Smart Tags recognizers and handlers. It is possible for a user or
a business to use Smart Tags technology and never see or follow a Microsoft
Smart Tags link.
While the utility
of Smart Tags for general purpose users has not yet been demonstrated,
it is possible that workers with specific, repetitive tasks requiring frequent
copy-and-paste operations among applications may find Smart Tags a productivity
It is also a shame
that Microsoft created Smart Tags while working quietly with major corporations,
but with little or no open discussion in the Internet community. The lack
of such discussion only fans the fires of those who hotly contest every
move by the monopolist. Yet arguably Smart Tags technology is merely an
XML application embedded in Microsoft products. Anyone else could have
invented Smart Tags, and anyone else could invent or exploit the idea in
their products. No hue and cry would have arisen if Corel had invented
To be sure, Microsoft
potentially gains an advantage with the default set of Smart Tags, both
in Windows XP and Office XP. Smart Tags could follow in the tradition of
other previous attempts by Microsoft to "control the Internet." Without
a doubt, Microsoft's motivation is to draw eyeballs to its own properties,
such as MSN. But historically, similar Microsoft tactics have flopped.
Does anyone remember when Microsoft introduced "Channels" in Internet Explorer?
The feature didn't impress anyone. Or when Microsoft made Inktomi the preferred
provider for the Start/Search button in Windows? That didn't stop Google
from becoming the champ among search engines. Or the bundling of MSN on
the desktop? It is AOL, not MSN, that is the dial-up ISP near-monopoly
in the United States.
A decade into the
Web revolution, it may be tempting to think we understand all the ramifications
of hypermedia. But I claim we have only begun to explore the real power
of the ideas of Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, and Tim Berners-Lee. Context-sensitive,
intelligent hyperlinks could be as important as the familiar author-created
hyperlink. Smart Tags may or may not be the right way to extend linking
functionality, but it is an innovation worth exploring. It should not be
dismissed simply because Microsoft invented it. To the extent Smart Tags
useful, the removal from Windows XP is a blow to innovation.
If Smart Tags had
not come from a company with 90 percent of the desktop operating system
market, 90 percent of the applications software market, and a growing share
in online services markets, most people, including my friend the CTO, might
not have objected. After all, NBCi has heavily promoted its QuickClick
browser add-on, which is essentially the same idea as Smart Tags, and no
pundit objected. In any event, Mossberg overreached when he portrayed Smart
Tags in Internet Explorer as rewriting Web pages. While newbies might confuse
Smart Tags from original content, anyone else will understand what they
are — and many, disliking the clutter, will simply disable the feature.
But as always,
things are different when Microsoft is involved. Microsoft and its customers
live in a strange mid-antitrust age, in which any Microsoft innovation
is suspect. Ironically, the best argument for splitting up Microsoft may
be that in so doing, the two companies would become free to innovate without
fear of recrimination. But, at last report, that split-up is no longer
on the table.
An extensive set of illustrative screens shots appears at http://netfact.com/searcher/smarttags.html.
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.