The Second Coming of Microsoft Smart Tags

April 14, 2005


Mark Twain was right. History does rhyme. And my variant on Samuel Clemens quote is that history not only rhymes – it now riffs (or maybe it’s a cover song)! This time, I’m hearing the notes of the smart tag song once again.

For those with short memories, I’ll play a few notes. In early 2001, Microsoft announced its Hailstorm initiative as well as its Smart Tags features for Windows XP (and Office XP). I won’t go into too many details – especially since I’m not an expert on the subject. But the heart of these technologies was a coupling of web services (via XML and SOAP) and smart-tagging. The industry (i.e., the open source community and many web developers) screamed “foul.” Specifically, folks felt that it was absolutely criminal for Microsoft to “edit” content by adding tags that weren’t provided by the content author. BTW, I was one of those screaming about the “arrogance” of Microsoft acting as a content editor.

Today, we are now talking about tags once again. All of us are thrilled by Flickr, and other tag-centric content modification approaches. And lots of us are thrilled by the Greasemonkey extension for Mozilla Firefox – even the staid Jon Udell.

So what’s my point? Everything old is new again. Greasemonkey is doing exactly what we screamed at Microsoft for doing. Well, sort of. Greasemonkey is different because it places content control in the customers’ hands – not a corporation’s hands. The customer must implement the scripts that would modify the content. In this regard, the ethics are quite different than the Microsoft Smart Tags proposition. But the technologies are quite similar.

And if the big content providers release their own versions of Firefox (as both Yahoo and Google are rumored to be doing), then we must watch these folks quite carefully. It would take very little work to include Greasemonkey and a bunch of scripts into a browser. And such amplified browsers would be capable of doing exactly what we screamed at Microsoft for talking about.

So the issue of content modification and ethics needs to remain a concern for the open source community – lest we engage in the same things that we scorned others for. Simon Willison has the makings of a good start on the subject. Let’s keep the discussion going!




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