Searcher
Vol. 9 No. 8 September 2001
BEHIND THE SCREEN
Microsoft's Windows XP Woes Mount:
Smart Tags Feature Vulnerable?
by Richard Wiggins
Senior Information Technologist Michigan State University
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Microsoft 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:
  • 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 hardware changes.
  • 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.
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.

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.

Internally, Smart 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:

<xml>
<o:DocumentSmartTags>
<st3:players PlayerID="5498">
<st1:GivenName>
Wade</st1:GivenName>
</st3:players>
<st2:casename
LexisNexisProductID="The Supreme Court decided the case of The New York Times v. Tasini.">
<st2:party1 LexisNexisProductID="Party1">
The Supreme Court decided the case of The <st6:XanEdu-Strategic-Management-Topic>
<st3:teams TeamID="nyy">
New York</st3:teams>
Times</st6:XanEdu-Strategic-Management-Topic>
</st2:party1>
v.<st2:party2LexisNexisProductID="Party2">
Tasini.</st2:party2>
</st2:casename>
<st5:PersonName>
<st1:GivenName>
Bill</st1:GivenName>
<st1:Sn>
Clinton</st1:Sn>
</st5:PersonName>
<st5:PersonName>
<st1:GivenName>
Marc</st1:GivenName>
<st1:Sn>
Rich</st1:Sn>
</st5:PersonName>
<st5:PersonName>
<st3:players PlayerID="2035">
<st1:GivenName>
Cal</st1:GivenName>
<st1:Sn>
<st3:players PlayerID="2035">
Ripken</st3:players>
</st1:Sn>
</st3:players>
</st5:PersonName>
<st4:Id5BaseballTeam>
<st3:teams TeamID="sea">
<st5:place>
<st5:City>
<st1:Sn>
Seattle</st1:Sn>
</st5:City>
</st5:place>
<st3:teams TeamID="sea">
Mariners</st3:teams>
</st3:teams>
</st4:Id5BaseballTeam>
<st1:Sn>
Stanford</st1:Sn>
<st4:Id4HigherEducation>
<st5:place>
<st5:PlaceName>
Michigan</st5:PlaceName>
<st5:PlaceType>
State</st5:PlaceType>
<st5:PlaceType>
University</st5:PlaceType>
</st5:place>
</st4:Id4HigherEducation>
<st4:Id3Company>
Microsoft</st4:Id3Company>
<st2:casename LexisNexisProductID="Roe v. Wade">
<st2:party1 LexisNexisProductID="Party1">
Roe</st2:party1>
v. <st3:players PlayerID="5498">
<st2:party2 LexisNexisProductID="Party2">
<st1:GivenName>
Wade</st1:GivenName>
</st2:party2>
</st3:players>
</st2:casename>
</o:DocumentSmartTags>
</xml><![

Microsoft offers a Developer's Kit for creating Smart Tags. Third-party development tools are beginning to appear.
 

The Controversy
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.

One enthusiastic 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."

Gossage argues 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:

  • 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 boon.
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.

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 Smart Tags.

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 are 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.

Note: An extensive set of illustrative screens shots appears at http://netfact.com/searcher/smarttags.html.


Richard Wiggins' e-mail address is wiggins@msu.edu

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