Big Brother Microsoft

A feature of the new Windows XP called Smart Tags allows Microsoft to insert hyperlinks into nearly any content. It's the kind of technological advance that wars are fought over. Microsoft has two roads to choose from, the philanthropic one or the capitalist one. One Fool suggests the former.

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By Todd N. Lebor (TMF TeeTime)
June 8, 2001

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) is at it again. Just when it looks like the anti-trust issues are behind it, it stirs up things with Smart Tags. Smart Tags is a feature included in some beta versions of Windows XP, and it's raising eyebrows throughout the online community.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Smart Tags "automatically scans the Web pages that a Windows XP user browses, inserting links beneath certain types of words, such as names of the companies, sports teams or colleges." If you think this sounds an awful lot like a hyperlink -- one of those underlined blue words on a website that takes the user to another webpage -- you're right, except that whereas a webpage designer controls a hyperlink, Microsoft will control Smart Tags.

Several months ago, NBC Internet (Nasdaq: NBCI) started advertising a similar feature called QuickClick. According to the NBCi website, "QuickClick is standing by to turn any word on your screen, whether you are on the Web or off, into links to related information." Using QuickClick -- words of which appear in underlined yellow to distinguish them from traditional hyperlinks -- requires installing some free software on your computer and is "invisible" outside of Microsoft's Internet Explorer unless the user activates it.

There wasn't much of an uproar when NBCi started touting its latest feature. That's because NBCi doesn't have access to practically every computer user. Microsoft does.

At the peak of the Internet boom, General Electric (NYSE: GE), NBCi's majority shareholder, slapped together NBCi from the consumer portal website Xoom and CNET's (Nasdaq: CNET) hip Snap.com in hopes of riding the wave and providing an online outlet for its content. NBC also has a cable and Internet joint venture with Microsoft called MSNBC, so it's not surprising to see this same technology turn up in both places. But the question remains, should Microsoft or any other company be able to control which words have links and where those links go?

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company is still considering whether to include the feature in the final release of Windows XP, but investors can be assured that issues like this will only prolong Microsoft's attempts to settle its anti-trust problems. Usually, I'm behind Microsoft initiatives to enhance the user experience, but because I'm a writer and publish content on the Internet, this one hits too close to home. Occasionally I'll throw a few links into an article that provide related news or more in-depth details about a topic I'm covering. I have control over that. If Microsoft were able to control -- and presumably charge for inserting these Smart Tags -- my shares of Microsoft might go up, but my goodwill feeling toward the company would go right out the window.

Technological advances cannot and should not be stopped, slowed, or even discouraged, but an invention such as Smart Tags should not be in the hands of a for-profit enterprise. Period. End of story. There's just no arguing it.

I'm reminded of the turn-of-the-century story of William Randolph Hearst using a network of his company-owned publications to propagate his own opinions. Microsoft may not have this intention; in fact, I'm pretty sure it doesn't, but with its dominance in the digital world and the anticipated penetration of Windows XP, it would have the power. That kind of power, abused or not, is what divides people and creates the kind of animosity that could damage the freedom of the Internet.

Bill, tread carefully here. Think philanthropic thoughts when putting Smart Tags to work. A capitalist agenda will only get Microsoft into more trouble and could tarnish the good you plan to do with your foundation.

Fool on!

Todd Lebor is just another independent free-thinker. Are you? He proudly owns shares in Microsoft. His other holdings can be found online, along with the Fool's complete disclosure policy.

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