Don't Cry for Smart Tags
July 2, 2001
Since smart tags are also in Office XP, which shipped in May, and Windows XP is scheduled for release in only four months, it is doubtful that Microsoft suddenly discovered that it was behind schedule with the smart tags for Internet Explorer.
The more likely scenario is that the "external feedback" was actually a bunch of end users getting angry about Microsoft's control of Web content. The assumption was that Microsoft would preload Windows XP with smart tags that favored Microsoft, directing users to its own sites. The uproar over smart tags probably made the software giant want to make changes to the smart tags feature, such as changing it from being on by default unless a Web page specifies that it is "opting out," to being off by default unless a Web page explicitly opts in.
Smart tags are a technology that allows annotation of content by software running on the end user's machine. Various different smart tags can be installed on a system, each recognizing various words or phrases, and suggesting actions associated with them (such as browsing to a Web site, although in principle any action could be offered).
The recognized words are marked in a user-visible way, allowing them to select the associated action. It is similar in ways to a hyperlink, but under the control of the reader, not the author. In other words, a Web page downloaded from a site is presented in a way that is possibly different (and unpredictably so) from how the creator of the site designed it.
Windows XP will have been two years in development when it is finished, and redesigning a feature four months before shipping is not worth risking the entire project on.
Pulling the feature out is a much safer bet. This does not mean, however, that smart tags are done for. Most importantly, they are supported in the latest shipping versions of Word and Excel. The technology itself won't go away -- even if Internet Explorer does not support it.
Developers are writing smart tags. Microsoft has shipped some with Office XP, and other companies are writing their own.
Microsoft also has tools that make writing simple smart tags as easy as coming up with a list of words to match and the corresponding Web sites to surf to -- something a non-programmer can easily do.
Smart tags, from a technical level, are Windows DLLs (Dynamically Linked Libraries), which support a standard interface allowing them to recognize words, and also perform an action with a recognized word. That is all the smart tag itself does: like any other DLL, it needs to be loaded by an application. The application is responsible for asking the smart tag DLL if it recognizes any words, getting back the associated action list, presenting some user interface (UI) to the user to let him or her choose an action. And then telling the smart tag which action to perform.
In Office, this is done by underlining the word(s) with a purple squiggle and presenting a pop-up menu if the user right-clicks, but that design is external to the actual smart tag interface.
The way to interface with Windows DLLs -- including DLLs such as smart tags, which are a more specific type known as a COM object -- is well-documented, as are the specific interfaces used by smart tags. Microsoft has a publicly available Smart Tags Software Development Kit or SDK. Therefore, anyone can write an application that loads smart tags.
Certainly I would expect an application that deals with data, such as Lotus Notes, to quickly come out with an update that allows smart tags to do their recognition and action work on its behalf.
To take it even further, what if Mozilla or Opera, or another browser that runs on Windows, decides to support hosting of smart tags?
Based on the recent firestorm over Internet Explorer, the company could design it so it alleviated the main concerns people have about the feature. Plus, people wouldn't get as upset in general since someone other than Microsoft would be pushing the feature.
Now, all of a sudden, a competitor to Internet Explorer would have a feature that IE lacked, and one that Microsoft had designed and publicized to boot? Since the feature is part of the browser, not the operating system, it wouldn't take Microsoft very long at all to produce an update to Internet Explorer with smart tags back in.
So don't cry for smart tags. They are here to stay.
Adam Barr worked at Microsoft for over 10 years before leaving in April 2000. His book about his time there, "Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters," was published in December 2000. He lives in Redmond, Washington.