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Who owns the Web?

Well, nobody–except maybe Microsoft. Net Ventures hed: Who owns the Web? dek: well, nobody–except maybe Microsoft. by Sean M. Dugan

You really have to admire Microsoft for its proficiency at what it does. You also have to admire the proficiency of sharks, scorpions, and black widow spiders. Critics of the Redmond uber-company decry how Microsoft never gets it-whatever it happens to be at the moment. If anything, Microsoft executive’s great strength is getting it. They learn about an exciting new technological development, look to the underlying assumptions, culture and unspoken rules, then develop a product that doesn’t break the letter of those rules. Odds are, though, the result goes completely against the original spirit of these rules.

Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision of the Web was a collaborative space between readers and authors: one great big shared, interactive space. We often think of the Web as a static medium, like publishing on paper. But that’s merely an artifact of technological development. In the early days it was simply easier to code a browser that read Web pages only. And by the time they did figure out how to code an interactive browser, the corporate Web couldn’t allow users to edit Web pages.

With paper, readers really have a single form of control-whether they read or not. Much to the chagrin of finicky Web designers and record company executives everywhere, the Web is a completely different ballgame from previous media, and readers are calling a lot of the shots. If users don’t like the font you choose, or its size, or the background color or the color of the hyperlinks, they can change it. A savvy user can also parse your content, eliminate your bloated images and exorcise your banner advertising.

Some companies have tried to play with this potent principle. CrowdBurst, Odigo, and Gooey have applications that allow users to create chat rooms around a Web page. ThirdVoice caused a media stir, and subsequently died, by allowing users to post virtual sticky notes on a Web site. Some called it a user-driven forum, others a technology enabling Web site graffiti, depending on what the notes attached to the Web site said. These applications represent our slow, incremental movement toward fulfilling the original intent of the Web-a vast interactive network where the distinction between an author and reader is fuzzy at best. Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Consortium has created an open-source version of his early collaborative browser called Amaya www.w3.org/Amaya/.

Sounds interesting, but the dream’s not quite true yet. You’re probably not using these applications for a simple reason: You’d have to download and install them. They’re not compelling enough for most users to go to the trouble. For example, if ThirdVoice had figured out a way to swap MP3s via its software, history might have been different.

Well, you can toss these caveats out the window if you’re the company that can build these capabilities into a Web browser in beginning. In other words, if you’re Microsoft.

Enter “smartlinks,” one of the those Microsoft ideas that invokes the Rule of Spinal Tap: It’s a fine line between clever and stupid. In Microsoft’s upcoming Windows XP, your Web browser is going to have a new trick: It creates its own hyperlinks. Keywords in a Web page will be “smartlinked,” which is pretty much like a hyperlink, except that the author of the Web page didn’t create it, Microsoft did.

Microsoft sees a big future in subscription-based services. That’s the point of the its .NET initiatives. An idea like smartlinks can mean big bucks. It’s the ultimate affiliate marketing scheme, in which somebody’s Web page directs a Web surfer to an online retailer to buy.

How much would Amazon pay to force any Web reference to a book directly to its site? What would Barnes and Noble pay to not have their links broken? Talk about incentive to play ball with Microsoft.

Oh, and let’s not forget, this technology means your browser is sifting through the text on every Web page you’re viewing and reporting back to MS headquarters. Fills you with that nice, comforting, Big Brothery feeling, doesn’t it?

Nobody owns the Web, except perhaps the people who create its underlying technologies. I’m all for a Web that’s about collaboration and interactivity. I’m all for Microsoft coming up with clever ideas. I just think some ideas are a little too clever for their own good.

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