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Microsoft is pulling smart tags from the shipping version of Windows XP, due in late October. That doesn't mean they've gone away - they're still in Office XP, and have the potential to return in IE as a 'standard' feature, but presumably one of the tasks the XP coders have to perform is to take them out of RC1, which is expected next week.

Microsoft was actually rather proud of its IE version of smart tags prior to the appearance of the system, but they only showed up in a couple of builds of the XP beta, and only seem to have been switched on by default in one (the one The Reg got to look at last, naturally...). They're also available as a download for the IE6 preview, but in the IE/WinXP form they're pretty basic, and not very exciting.

Essentially, the smart tag system parses web pages and highlights words it's been set up to look for. In the IE version these have a menu attached that allows you to check stock prices, get company news, and so on. Most of this consists of links to Microsoft's Moneycentral, and obvious defects from the user's point of view are that the range of information available is basic, and in the case of quite a lot of non-US users, pretty irrelevant.

Potentially the OXP implementation has more promise. It's pitched much more at third party developers, and could be used internally by businesses to build groovy automation systems. As we said a while back, the IE implementation boiled down to a crummy hits hijack, and we're pleased to see Microsoft now tacitly agrees with us.

As company spinsman Jim Cullinan puts it to CNET, it wasn't going to be possible to get smart tags properly ready in time for October, and he also indicates "external feedback" as a factor.

Translation: as we said, the IE implementation was meat-headed and basic. Although the technology has the capability of being used for really cool stuff, lots of work is needed to achieve this, and there's no way Microsoft can do it on its own. It was in danger of shipping something with the OS that was as unimpressive in action as Pointcast (remember that one?), and this time around it faced the added bonus of outcries from enraged users and web site proprietors, possibly extending to legal action.

A surprisingly eloquent expression, "external feedback."

But we shouldn't run away with the idea that smart tags have gone away, or that it is now not Microsoft's intention to use the browser to make them pervasive. Rationally, Microsoft will now use services to drive them into the market, rather than spamming the world with tags whose underlying services are at best dubious. It can and will implement specific and attractive smart tag support in its own web sites and communications, and it will encourage third party development and deployment in businesses. So start with stuff users will find useful and attractive, and people will naturally buy into the technology.

The logical delivery mechanism for this is IE, which will inevitably be far more pervasive than OXP. Using smart tags will however be much more clearly a matter of user choice, and to some extent that may head off some of the objections and legal threats.

But not entirely. If a smart tag appears on a local screen displaying a page from a site that didn't create the tag or participate in its creation, an unauthorised derivative work is being created by somebody, so you could maybe bust somebody, but who? Probably still Microsoft, but the company maybe has a bit of legal squirming space in there.

Aside from legal action, a more immediate fix is available by metatagging your pages. Don Doumakes refers us to a third party Apache web server module, mod_layout, which can be used to automatically propagate the tag across your site.

Elsewhere, people are threatening to go onto the attack. Usethesource.com is threatening to publish its own smart tags and release the source under GPL (no, we've no idea about this either), the objective being to "overwhelm Microsoft with an outpouring of our 'love' for their technology." As far as we can see this plan has yet to go into action, but you never know. ®

Related stories:
Web sites! Banish those WinXP, IE6 smart tag blues!
Have you been smart tagged? WinXP IE6 has a little list

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