Microsoft's Smart Tags Threaten the User Experience
Thursday, June 21, 2001
by Mark Hurst
Microsoft's upcoming release of Windows XP contains a feature that attempts to suck all meaningful experience out of every page on the Web. The feature, called Smart Tags, has brought about a loud discussion on many websites -- Web developers everywhere screaming for Microsoft to stop, and Microsoft arrogantly defending itself. This is an important enough issue that I wanted to make sure everyone on Good Experience knows about it.
Walt Mossberg, technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, broke the Smart Tags story in his June 7 column. Here's what he wrote:
[Smart Tags] allow Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser -- included in Windows XP -- to turn any word on any Web site into a link to Microsoft's own Web sites and services, or to any other sites Microsoft favors.
In effect, Microsoft will be able, through the browser, to re-edit anybody's site, without the owner's knowledge or permission, in a way that tempts users to leave and go to a Microsoft-chosen site -- whether or not that site offers better information.
Soon after, Dave Winer wrote this column (among others) about Smart Tags. Then Dan Gillmor, at San Jose Mercury News, wrote a column on his blog. Then Connie Guglielmo wrote a clever, and searing, column in Interactive Week. Weblogs like this one got into it. Everyone agreed: Microsoft was in the wrong.
Dave Winer has continued monitoring the discussion and today posted this -- the quote that sent me over the edge -- a defense of Smart Tags sent in by a Microsoft employee:
To suggest that the author knows best how to write effectively to each individual reader is silly
...implying, of course, that Microsoft knows better than authors how to communicate to their readers. Dave then quoted another reader, who wrote in:
Did Lincoln need Smart Tags in Gettysburg, to speak effectively to each individual reader? Will Microsoft be Smart Tagging the Bible? "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
This could happen, you know. If Microsoft gains monopoly over the Web, everything -- including John 1:1 -- could be sponsored by Microsoft. And that will be the end of the Web as the last major medium not owned by major corporations.
For now, Robert Scoble's weblog is keeping up with the news on the Smart Tags. Apparently Microsoft has responded to the uproar by claiming they have modified Smart Tags a bit.
To me, this underscores the problem we're beginning to face as Microsoft attempts to extend its self-serving, user-hostile monopoly to the Web. Smart Tags are likely just the first in a series of much bigger threats Microsoft makes to the online user experience. We must try to protect the Web by remaining vigilant to Microsoft's moves. (If you're lucky enough to have a choice, don't use Microsoft software.)
Related link: Bill Gates comic (August 8, 2000)
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