The kit allows developers to create ActiveX controls--miniature programs that jazz up Web pages with spreadsheets or animation--for Macintosh Web browsers, including Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape Communications' Navigator. The kit is available for free downloading from the company's Web site. It includes a plug-in for Navigator and Internet Explorer 2.1 for the Mac.
Microsoft will support ActiveX natively in IE 3.0 for the Mac, due by year's end. Not to be outdone, Netscape said this week that it intends to support ActiveX natively in its forthcoming Communicator product.
One of the cornerstones of Microsoft's Net strategy, ActiveX is a component architecture, or a set of rules governing how applets written in any programming language can cooperate with each other. However, it has come under fire from Netscape, Sun Microsystems, and other companies for being a proprietary, Windows-only technology.
Earlier this month, Microsoft attempted to deflect this criticism by turning its ActiveX "core technologies" over to an independent standards organization, the Open Group. Still, that move failed to silence Sun and other critics that fear Microsoft will keep key pieces of ActiveX largely to itself.
"There are still some uncertainties about what Microsoft has given to the Open Group," said Dwight Davis, editorial director of Windows Watcher, an industry newsletter.
By releasing an ActiveX SDK for the Macintosh, Microsoft is hoping to mute criticism it works only on Windows. One of its main aims is to get developers to convert their Netscape plug-ins to ActiveX controls, a simple procedure but one that could make ActiveX more popular than another cross-platform component architecture from Netscape, known as LiveConnect.
Although the ActiveX architecture is becoming more cross-platform, specific ActiveX controls do not necessarily run on all platforms. In contrast, Java developers can create applets once and run them on any operating system.
Still, ActiveX controls typically offer better performance and a richer user experience than Java applets, according to Ramesh Parameswaran, a product manager at Microsoft.
"There are developers that want to write once and run everywhere," Parameswaran said. "This SDK is designed for people who are optimizing their products for the Macintosh."
Microsoft's Mac SDK may help spur a growing trend of using both ActiveX and Java technologies in the same program, a combination that preserves the platform independence of applets.
"The reality is that developers will use a combination of the two," said David Smith, an analyst with the Gartner Group. "Java doesn't do everything developers might want it to do."