Imagine if tobacco companies announced they were not only restarting cartoon ads aimed at children, but sending helicopters to drop cigarettes into schoolyards during recess. Or if airline execs went on TV and said, "To boost profits, we're not only increasing delays and overbooking but introducing a new service called SRO Class -- no seats, all standees on all flights."
But those are just fantasies. In reality, Microsoft is considering the least defensible, most incomprehensible move yet, of all the self-serving moves it's made since acquiring de facto monopoly power over our desktops and browsers: a way for Microsoft to edit every Web page before you see it.
As you've probably heard, the controversy involves the "Smart Tag" technology of Office XP and its inclusion in Internet Explorer in the most recent betas of Windows XP. As reported by The Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg and internet.com's BrowserWatch, IE has acquired the ability to parse each Web page as you browse and insert new links beneath words or phrases it recognizes.
The new links will have little squiggly lines, so surfers with sharp eyes will almost be able to tell them from real hyperlinks put there by the page author (such as the two references above).
But you know and I know that most users -- folks who haven't gotten around to changing their PC vendor's desktop logo wallpaper, never mind clearing their cache or disabling cookies -- will bemusedly find that, as The Register's John Lettice notices in XP Build 2475, every mention of a company carries a pop-up menu that offers to jump you to a news page, stock quote, and price chart, all from MSN MoneyCentral.
Or that X10, the banner-ad-crazed home-automation vendor now fanning flames with annoying ad windows that pop under popular sites, has bought hyperlink rights to the words "camera," "multimedia," and "MP3." Or that a ruthless Christina Aguilera has bought rights to the words "Britney Spears."
This Time They've Gone Too Far
Microsoft says that, if it decides to include Smart Tags in the final version of IE 6, the feature will be turned off by default. It says other companies will be able to develop Smart Tags, and that Webmasters will be able to block them (though the onus will be on authors to add blocking code to every HTML page they write). It says adding convenient links to extra content and relevant info is a boon that will make consumers glad.
Apologists say this is no big deal, that a few browser add-ins like NBCi's QuickClick do the same thing -- although they're obscure, third-party products that users must choose to seek out and install, not integrated and unavoidable like Windows XP's browser, instant messaging client, CD-R burner, anti-MP3 and pro-WMA-format media player, and other components.
I say baloney. The specter of Smart Tag browsing is an intolerable intrusion into online content -- a threat to turn the whole Web into the kind of "for sale" space that Microsoft's manipulated with online-service icons and Active Desktop channels, maybe even to undermine the whole democratic, Gutenberg-printing-press vision of the Internet.
And it's a genuinely grotesque move from a company that lately seems hell-bent on making the worst possible impression, inviting more antitrust prosecution and consumer backlash. I've written in this space about Microsoft pressing ahead with an unpopular Product Activation scheme, alienating users who frequently upgrade PC components for the sake of fighting piracy, and starting to insist that corporate customers switch to Windows and Office subscriptions, with software that they can't buy once and keep using but that requires regular payments or upgrades. I'm starting to feel like a boy crying wolf.
And frankly, I'm urging you to act -- no, not to burn your PCs or switch to Linux cold turkey, but, if you want a Microsoft operating system, to hurry and buy the excellent Windows 2000 Professional before XP appears with all its gadgets and gotchas. And if Internet Explorer 6.0 proves to have Smart Tag technology, just say no; stick with IE 5.5 (or take a long look at Opera). Let the federal appeals court decide whether Microsoft has absolute power, but don't let it corrupt absolutely.
Eric Grevstad is managing editor of Hardware Central, an internet.com site. A former editor in chief of Home Office Computing and editor of Computer Shopper, he's been covering PCs and peripherals since leaving the liberal arts for TRS-80 and Apple II magazines in the early '80s.