Microsoft plans to introduce a new hyperlink widget in Internet Explorer on the Windows XP platform, expected to be released in October. I imagine you may have read quite a lot about these tags already. In case you haven’t, here’s a distilled version… The XP version of Internet Explorer automatically places “Smart Tags” on web pages you call into the browser window. These tags underline key words and phrases that have been identified by Microsoft, and link to sites that Microsoft believes you should be aware of. The Smart Tag links appear as wavy purple underlines, so they can be distinguished from the regular sort of links placed by the author of the material you’re viewing. Microsoft has released corresponding software development tools so that third party developers can also insert Smart Tags in your browser window–though you’d need to download tag libraries that weren’t produced by Microsoft and its partner companies.
As you might imagine, Microsoft’s critics are crying foul. As for me–once a Microsoft fan and now more or less ambivalent to Redmond–even I think this one smells. It’s bad enough to introduce yet another browser-dependant extension that flies an extended digit in the direction of the W3C [yet again]. In this case, Microsoft has gone far beyond exploiting a derivative of a proposed standard. Instead, Microsoft appears to be jockeying for editorial control of the entire Internet.
Does Microsoft–or anyone else–have the right to insert their editorial or “advertorial” viewpoint into web sites and documents that they do not own? Of course not. Whether or not editorial gerrymandering was ever the intent of the Smart Tag feature, it offers far too much opportunity for abuse to be released in its present form. Chris Kaminski has offered some great advice on making Smart Tag technology palatable to site owners. Frankly, I’d like to see more.
First, implement the W3C XML Linking Language [Xlink] proposal to provide more sophisticated link capabilities to site authors: technologies like two-way links and link descriptors which are, frankly, long overdue. Second, put your inestimable engineering talent to work providing users the ability to create local and remote hyperlinks, annotations and other private mark-ups on web pages they browse. Bookmarking [sorry, the Favorites folder] was a workable start, but it’s entirely inadequate to the task of connecting relevant dots between billions of available web pages.
Link technology has remained virtually unchanged–that is to say, underdeveloped–since the release of Mosaic. Updates to link technology should be squarely focused on improving the lot of the user. Not Microsoft. Not even the web site owner.
That, Mr. Gates, is where I want to go today.