In last week's Windows 2000 Magazine UPDATE, I discussed Microsoft's plan to get you to upgrade to Office XP, a rather lukewarm release at best. Thanks to everyone who responded to the column. Writing about Microsoft as much as I do, I often find myself in the awkward position of defending the company about some issues while attacking it about others. Because Microsoft is such a large company, its actions vary widely, and most of the situations in which the company finds itself aren't neatly black or white. The Office XP issue I discussed last week is such a case, as is Windows Product Activation (WPA)—although my email responses suggest that most of you are firmly against WPA. Recently, two other issues, one related to Office XP and one to Windows XP, have entered the public consciousness, thanks to some unscrupulous reporting on the Web. I'd like to take a look at those issues and see whether we really need to worry about them.
Office XP and Smart Tags
One major new feature in Office XP and Internet Explorer (IE) 6 is something called the Smart Tag. A Smart Tag is a small button that appears in Office documents and on Web pages next to items that can link to an external source. For example, Microsoft has built Smart Tags into Office XP that relate to your Outlook Contacts list or Calendar schedule. When you type a date into, say, a Word document, a red dotted line will appear under that date, similar to the red squiggly line Microsoft uses to indicate a spelling mistake. Hovering your mouse pointer over the text makes the Smart Tag button appear. You can click the button to reveal options; in this case, options such as Schedule a Meeting and Show My Calendar appear.
A primary benefit of Smart Tags is that Microsoft has opened the specification to the public so that third parties can create their own tags. Some useful tags are already available, including one from UPS that lets you hover your mouse pointer over a UPS tracking number in a Word document or on a Web page and track the related package using the Internet. Also, one from Expedia lets you book flights, cars, and hotels when you hover over a place name, such as a city.
But Smart Tags have been the subject of a bizarre debate online, with some analysts charging Microsoft with trying to control Web browsing through this feature. The problem is that Microsoft is including this technology in IE. Let's say I write an article about Microsoft (as I often do). When I post this story on the Web, I might want readers to stay on my site rather than follow a link to other locations, so I code the HTML in the page accordingly. With Smart Tags, however, links to other locations appear automatically. Every time the word "Microsoft" appeared, it would be a link, even though that wasn't my intention. Users might follow this link to microsoft.com or MSN.com to see how the company's stock is faring these days, and the reader might be lost forever.
Frankly, I don't think including Smart Tag technology in IE 6 is such a huge issue—although many news sites now tout the technology as Microsoft's latest bid to control the planet. To calm fears, Microsoft has apparently decided to leave Smart Tags off by default in IE 6 (which will ship in Windows XP) and offer Web masters a custom tag they can use to disable Smart Tags on their sites. That's an appropriate response, and it hardly suggests a conspiracy theory. Indeed, I'm sure many enterprises will find the Smart Tag feature useful, especially on company intranets.
Windows XP and MP3 Support
Another recent hot point has been Microsoft's support for the MP3 audio format in Windows XP, through the bundled Windows Media Player (WMP). This issue has also been blown out of proportion, especially given that the company has been open about MP3 support since the XP Beta 2 Technical Review hosted for the press in Redmond in February.
Here's the story. In the previous version of the player, WMP 7, Microsoft supported MP3 playback but not MP3 recording. To use WMP 7 to record audio, you had to use Microsoft's Windows Media format. In WMP for XP, Microsoft is adding a plug-in technology that lets OEMs—such as Dell, IBM, or any other enterprising third-party developer—add MP3 recording support to the player. WMP for XP will still record in Windows Media format, of course, but includes the capability to add support for MP3 recording as well. And I expect dozens of freeware plug-ins to appear within the next few months anyway for people who acquire XP at retail.
To test the plug-in technology, Microsoft included the free version of the Fraunhofer MP3 codec, which records only at low-quality 56Kbps, in XP Beta 2. At the time, users complained that Microsoft was "hobbling" MP3, mostly because they didn't understand why the feature was included to begin with. In XP's Release Candidate 1 (RC1), due later this month, the MP3 recording feature appears to be gone—because the freebie Fraunhofer technology has been removed, as Microsoft planned all along. Now, news sites are charging Microsoft with abandoning MP3 in favor of its own audio format. It's Microsoft against the world again, and one gets the feeling that the response would have been negative no matter what the company did. But Microsoft has actually provided more support for MP3 in WMP for XP than it did in the previous version, and the company shouldn't be faulted for that. You'll be able to add support for MP3 recording, even if it doesn't ship in the box.
To paraphrase Dennis Miller, you have no cause to hate Microsoft for superficial problems when you can spend a little time getting to know the company and find something to really dislike. Microsoft has done enough to warrant criticism at a variety of levels, but these two issues—the controversies du jour, if you will—are not among them. As any parent can tell you, you must pick the right battles to win the war. Smart Tags and MP3 aren't the right battles. But WPA? Now you're talking.