The ActiveX Change: What Does This Mean for You? (Updated)

 
Apr 04, 2006
by Judith and Michael Dinowitz

For those that are not current with the latest news on how your clients will be seeing your sites, let us tell you what's going on:

Eolas has claimed a broad patent that affects any sort of embedded content used on the Internet. In their first salvo, they have levied a lawsuit against Microsoft for the manner in which they embed content within their Internet Explorer browser. They claim that any time an ActiveX control is used automatically, it falls under the terms of the Eolas patent. In 2004, they won this lawsuit.

The outcome of this judgement was that Microsoft had to pay a fine and change the way its browser dealt with embedded content, or buy a license from Eolas. Microsoft, which is in the midst of appealing this case, has decided to comply with the court's decision to alter its browser rather than purchase a license they feel is based on a false premise. Microsoft may see this as a way of showing the court that the application of this patent will harm the use of the Internet, while at the same time causing Internet users to look upon Eolas with disgust.

To further complicate matters, in February, a patent was granted to Balthasar, a California-based web design firm, for "all rich-media technology implementations, including Flash, Flex, Java, Ajax, and XAML, when the rich-media application is accessed on any device over the Internet, including desktops, mobile devices, set-top boxes, and video game consoles." (These are the words of Balthasar's CEO, from an article in Information Week.) You can see where this trend is heading... What's next? Will Balthasar fight Eolas for the money it got from Microsoft? Maybe at that point, the judge will finally relent, kick the whole thing out, and let Internet Explorer get back to the way it was (while there's still life in it.)

However, this is all speculation, and as web developers, we have to deal with reality. So let's look at the current state of ActiveX changes, and what they mean to us.

The Impact

What changes will you see in Internet Explorer? Any embedded content that uses ActiveX controls (such as Flash, Java applets and PDFs) will run in the updated Internet Explorer. However, the user can only interact with that content if he or she "activates" it. When the user mouses over the content, a tooltip will appear on Internet Explorer prompting the user to activate the content. (Shockwave content behaves slightly differently due to the way it deals with mouseovers. Adobe explains all of this in their Adobe Active Content Developer Center.)

At first glance, one might think that ColdFusion is not affected. Actually, ColdFusion uses embedded Flash and Java for some of its advanced user interfaces. CFFORM, CFCHART, CFDOCUMENT and Flashpaper are some of the features that come to mind.

In the first week of March, Microsoft released the update that puts these changes into effect as an optional download. They will release the update for Internet Explorer 6 on April 11th as a permanent change to the browser. When Internet Explorer 7 comes out, these changes will be incorporated into the browser. The update on April 11th will be rolled out as part of their security updates (and any IE user who stays current with security will therefore be affected).

They are also providing a one-time "patch" for IE6 that will allow their Enterprise customers to roll back these changes for 60 days in order to fix any code that might be broken by the update. They have asked their customers not to use this patch if possible, or to use it only until their code has been fixed. The patch will expire after 60 days.

However, all this really means is that you'll have to change the way your content is embedded if you'd like to get around the "click to activate" effect, and keep the instant interaction that technologies like Flash and Java provide.

So What's the Solution?

Microsoft advises web developers to embed all of their ActiveX elements in external JavaScript files (http://msdn.microsoft.com/workshop/author/dhtml/overview/activating_activex.asp). This will work for most ActiveX elements, but since ColdFusion is generating the Flash for CFFORM and CFCHART, sometimes dynamically, the developer may not find this easy to implement. Two fixes that will automatically generate this JavaScript have already been developed, although both should be tested before implementation. Kevin Aebig has developed the cf_IEFlashFix custom tag that wraps around the CFForm tag, available at http://www.keslabs.com/stuff/eolas/. He has done limited testing on this and said that it seems to work so far. He also said that he'll be working on CFChart as well as regular Flash content over the next few days, in his spare time, so keep an eye on the ColdFusion Technical Talk list (CF-Talk) for further developments. Jason Ripper has also developed what he claims is a good solution for ColdFusion developers. (Our advice would be to test these out with IE 6 and the IE 7 beta before using them on your live sites.)

Before you look at your code, you should read Thomas Baekdal's article, which gives a nice overview of the issue and the effect it may have on your site's usability. I would also suggest visiting Adobe's Active Content Developer Center for their official documentation.

I've provided links to the fixes and to articles on the subject. If you have any to add, please email me, and I'll include them as well.

Activating ActiveX Controls

Adobe Active Content Developer Center

Eolas CFFORM Fix: Beta (ColdFusion Technical Talk, March 30, 2006)

Flash Forms and the Microsoft Eolas Fix. (ColdFusion Technical Talk, March 29, 2006)

activateActiveX (Ripper Rhetoric, March 30, 2006)

Eolas Fix for Flash: FlashObject (SomeTricks.com, April 23, 2006)

Microsoft IE Active X Update (Thomas Baekdal, April 3, 2006)

Microsoft Delays IE's ActiveX D-Day (eWeek, March 28, 2006)

Web developers get a respite on IE changes (CNET.com, March 29, 2006)

Eolas patent case prompts Microsoft to change ActiveX (VNUNET.com, March 31, 2006)

Microsoft Rolls Out IE6 ActiveX Change (BetaNews, March 1, 2006)

Microsoft Bows to Eolas, Revamps IE's Multimedia Handling (eWeek, December 2, 2005)

How Microsoft's ActiveX Fiasco Unfolded, and Its Effect On Firefox (Emailbattles.com, March 8, 2006)

U.S. Grants Patent For Broad Range Of Internet Rich Applications (Information Week, February 22, 2006)

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