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June 23, 2001

It seems I’m not alone in noticing how technology makes life harder for writers, specifically the part of writing that involves throwing obstacles at characters. Yeah, the young girl might be lost and alone in a dark alley, but she also probably has a cell phone. Sure, the hikers may be in an unfamiliar woods, but wouldn’t they have a GPS?

I’ve run into that problem while writing for Sfstory, mostly because the level of technology is so high. I’ve dealt with it to some extent by making long-distance communication awkward; otherwise situations get resolved too quickly. (Plus, I bill it as comedy, so the story doesn’t have to be 100% bulletproof, nice as that would be.) #

Smart Tags and the Third Party Link

Now that A List Apart has posted a super-long look at “Smart Tags”, I can give my own opinion without having to do too much research or synthesis (phew!).

To refresh your memory, “Smart Tags” are a technology very similar to Apple’s Data Detectors. The idea is that the computer searches for bits of text that follow certain formats, like URLs or city names, and then allows users to perform certain actions on the text it finds. Apple Data Detectors, for example, allow users to select a URL in any program and open it in an appropriate internet application. The difference is that Apple Data Detectors wait for the user to select text and then option-click on it before presenting a list of possible actions to perform while Smart Tags draws a dotted line underneath text which matches one or more of the installed tags. It doesn’t wait for the user to request it.

That, I think, is where the irritation comes from. If the user has to select text and option-click (or right-click) on it, then it’s more clear that the list of actions comes as the result of the user’s activity rather than being an intrinsic part of the document. Dotted underlines, on the other hand, do appear to be part of document.

There’s also an issue of context. If Microsoft wants to create a Smart Tag that links references to Microsoft’s Office suite to their Office web page, how can they distinguish them from random phrases involving the word office? Apple Data Detectors have an advantage there, in that the user has informed the software that something in the selected text is worth acting on.

The other thing that irritates people is the idea that Microsoft is effectively modifying their web pages without their consent. When people browse with IE 6, they’re seeing additional link-like objects on the page which the original author did not include. Savvy users will recognize that they’ve been generated by the software, but most people won’t know enough to make the decision.

Again, the issue is one of explicit activation. If Microsoft had a button on the toolbar which said “Display Smart Tags” and people had to push it before the tags got inserted, then no one would be complaining; it would be obvious that the tags were something extra that IE is adding. No one objects to the sites like Lynx Viewer or Crit, both of which make significant modifications to pages before presenting them to the viewers, but both also require that the user explicitly request their services.

This illustrates one of Microsoft’s fundamental misunderstandings. The company seems to believe that making things easier for users involves automating actions by trying to guess what the user wants to do instead of writing software that provides a consistent, learnable interface. Driving cars isn’t easy to learn, and the controls don’t necessarily map to real-world parameters like speed and acceleration, but people do learn to drive and thankfully don’t have to worry about the gas pedal trying to second-guess how fast they want to go based on some mysterious criteria that may or may not take all the relevant factors into account. #