Smart Tags: Too Much Ado About Nothing

One of the good things to come out of bad economic times should be better products.

One of the good things to come out of bad economic times should be better products. Successful vendors focus on solving pressing business problems while setting themselves up for better times. Unsuccessful companies, of course, simply go out of business.

Given this, its hard to see why so many competitors and detractors have raised a ruckus over Microsofts smart tags. They dont solve a pressing business need, theyre not all that useful and they seem to be more nifty than strategic.

Smart tags are simply XML code in Office XP applications that allow users to do extra things, such as copy the format of a document from Word and place it in FrontPage. Users can also send e-mail from Word or Excel by clicking on a contact with an associated smart tag.

Instead of seeing them as diabolical, I tend to think of smart tags as Microsofts AutoCorrect feature on steroids. In fact, smart tags are tied in with AutoCorrect and the grammar checker and so will work only with Office XP products and perhaps the next version of Internet Explorer.

The problem, as many see it, is that smart tags can contain content information. (Microsoft has pulled its original plans to tightly integrate smart tags directly with Windows XP, saying XP was not ready for the technology.) The fear is that Microsoft will force users onto certain content sites, such as MSN MoneyCentral or CarPoint, that are already running Windows XP and that Microsoft will eventually tie smart tags to pro-Microsoft sites or to sites in which Microsoft has an influence or a stake. The reality is far more benign.

The fear is driven by these facts. Smart tags are definitely a feature that Microsoft thinks will promote adoption of Windows XP. Smart tags can be associated with content from external Internet sites, and MSN will be the first and most prominent example. Smart tags wont work with non-Office XP and non-Windows XP products—at least when Windows XP is launched.

But guess what? No ones holding a gun to anyones head forcing him or her to use them. And smart tags arent all that smart. I mean, its pretty dumb for people to think that smart tags cant be associated with non-XP sites. Smart tags contain two components: handlers, which handle the content direction, and recognizers, which automatically recognize a smart tag as if it were a badly spelled word. It was dumb of Microsoft to tie the recognizer to the AutoCorrect feature because its not that easy for a developer to use (theres a smart tags SDK), and few will opt to do so.

But the biggest problem is that smart tags might simply backfire. Corporations dont want tagging. They dont want overlay technologies. They dont want to lose control over their applications. They dont want to have anything to do with tying applications to external content sites, especially if those connections cant be managed.

The result will be fewer upgrades to Office XP and Windows XP. And for those who are getting angry at all this integration, hey, StarOffice is looking pretty good—of course, Sun has its issues as well.