Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Education, Redmond Style

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 12, 2001

June 12, 2001

It probably doesn't need to be said, but the ultimate content distribution system on any computer is the operating system. For most people, that means Windows, and Windows, of course, is the tool we use to select documents to read, applications to run, even web pages to browse.

With the release of Windows XP, it becomes increasingly clear that Windows will be the tool we use to select our online resources. This means everything from journal articles to maps to video games to educational software.

What makes this possible is a feature of Windows XP known as smart tags. Think of smart tags as hyperlinks created by the operating system to appear in every web page, every MS Word document, or even every Excel spreadsheet. Click on the smart tag and be linked to resources, information and services related to that tag.

The author of the web page or document does not create smart tags. Content providers who want to provide links from your computer to their content create them. Obviously, Microsoft is the largest content provider, but it is by no means alone. For example, Xanedu, which sells, by subscription, access to a library of journal articles and multimedia, will also offer content through smart tags.

The introduction of smart tags in Windows XP has raised the ire of some critics. Some, such as The Register's John Lettice, worry that smart tags will create a new avenue of access for computer viruses. Others, such as the Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg , warn that smart tags are another means for Microsoft to extend its reach into new areas of commerce. And online writers, such as Steve Outing, argue that smart tags amount to a violation of an author's copyright.

The concern over viruses seems well founded. Microsoft products are popular targets for virus writers, and products such as Microsoft's Outlook allow programs written in Visual Basic to launch automatically. This was the source of the Melissa, which went from computer to computer via email attachments. Smart tags offer a similar means to transmit harmful programs. Viruses will launch automatically if a user clicks on a smart tag. And as Lettice comments, "if people can be induced to click on an executable with (a virus) as a payload, they're surely just as likely to click on a URL. Dumb is dumb."

Of even greater concern to Mossberg is the use of smart tags to promote Microsoft products and services. Because the operating system adds tags to every web page and document, readers are constantly encouraged to use Microsoft tools and read Microsoft content. And while Microsoft spokespeople say the feature helps solve the problem of "under-linked web sites," Mossberg rejoins, "who decides if a site is under-linked? It's up to a site's creators to decide how many, and which, terms to turn into links, where those links appear, and where they send users."

Professional writers have expressed outrage. In an email newsletter Outing opined that, "Microsoft has no business and no right to, in effect, edit the content that I as a publisher produce. It's a dumb, dumb, dumb idea that deserves to be shot down by public opinionÂ…" And while content authors can "turn off" the feature by embedding a meta-tag into their web page, it's not clear that Microsoft has the right to force authors to decline a feature by requiring special code in their documents.

But the most important property of smart tags hasn't reached the critics' radar screen yet. The purpose of smart tags is to allow third parties to offer online content through any web page or document. As a consequence, smart tags may be for academic publishers the Holy Grail of digital content distribution they have been seeking since the advent of the Internet made mass distribution and copying possible.

Smart tags are essentially powered by small applications users load on their computer; they may be plain text files or, for smarter tags, Windows DLL files. Without these applications, a set of tags will not appear. Content providers distribute their tags by distributing these applications. Thus if, say, Xanedu wants to charge a subscription fee for access to its library, it charges that fee for the application. Without the application, the links do not appear at all; with the application, Xanedu can see exactly who is reading from its content library and whether they have paid their fee.

It will be possible to create an online course simply by recommending a few smart tag packages and writing a short MS-Word document. It will be possible to provide online learning on-demand by including a smart tag package along with an application or web-based form. Who needs online learning portals? Every word a computer user reads is a potential access point to some learning material or other.

This is the logical final step in the commercialization of the World Wide Web. It represents an end to the era where online content was available to anyone with a browser and a beginning to an era where content is available only to those with the appropriate smart tag package. It represents a segmentation of web content, a development which will be heralded - or lambasted - as a digital land grab reminiscent of the settlement of the wild west.


Coursey, David. Are Smart Tags Part of an MS Plot (Hint: The WSJ is Wrong). ZDNet Anchrodesk. 11 June 2001.

Lettice, John. Smart tagging in Office XP - what Melissa did next? The Register. 06 April 2001.

Mossberg, Walter S. New Windows XP Feature Can Re-Edit Others' Sites. 07 June 2001. The Wall Street Journal.

Outing, Steve. No Wonder So Many Hate Microsoft. Content Exchange, 07 June 2001.

Wilcox, Joe. Windows XP May Steer Users' Web Choices. Cnet News.Com. 06 June 2001.

XanEdu.Com. XanEdu to Supply Content for Microsoft's New Office XP. Press Release. 31 May 2001.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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