Free the User Agents!

I've always thought that a user agent (the software that decodes a web page so that you can work with it) should be able to do whatever it wants. In the same way I can rip, mix and burn all the other media I bring into my computer, something as straightforward as an HTML page should be fodder for processing however I want.

About four and a half years ago, Microsoft announced their intent to add Smart Tags to the then-in-beta Internet Explorer 6. In grand blogosphere tradition, there was much hue and cry and the effort was abandoned.

I thought then, and still think now, that Smart Tags were a great idea, especially if they were implemented as an option. Being able to use simple text parsing (and hopefully eventually some sort of bayesian or semantic processing) to annotate a page with additional links and information is exactly what I want my user agents of choice (namely, Firefox and Internet Explorer) to be able to do. Once your HTML page gets to my machine, it's mine to rip, mix and burn.

But of course, nobody trusts Microsoft, and some of that mistrust is quite justified. So the idea died, and nobody's made a credible implementation of equivalent browser technology in the years since.

Until yesterday. Google put out their Google Toolbar 3 beta for Internet Explorer. In amidst the smattering of improvements is AutoLink, which parses page text to insert useful additional links on demand. WordTranslator works similarly, letting you translate words that you select on the page.

Except Google's implementation doesn't let third parties create logic for detecting text, and doesn't let third parties add additional actions to text that's hyperlinked. And Google gets all of the ad revenues from the Google services which are linked to by the AutoLinked text. Basically, It's Smart Tags except only Google gets to decide what's linked, and Google controls where the links go. Microsoft's Smart Tag implementation (which lives on in Microsoft Office) can be extended by any developer, letting you choose what get linked and where the links go.

Now, let me be clear. I don't begrudge Google their AutoLinks at all. I think they're a great technology and well implemented. Above all, they're useful. But I bet the entirety of web developers could come up with even more creative and useful stuff if they were freed to do so. Especially if they were freed to do so by core abilities in the most popular user agent platform, Internet Explorer on Windows. But they're not. Because people were so inflamed about the potential misuses of a technology that they refused to consider its legitimate applications.

So, techies and bloggers and journalists focused on the potential abuses of a technology instead of getting excited about, and building a business model on, its potential opportunities. They were threated by the potential for someone to manipulate and make something new out of their media. And they didn't anticipate that maybe growth and creativity for their medium could come by being less controlling of the way their works were used.

Sounds like exactly what we accuse the RIAA and MPAA of doing, almost every day.

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