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ActiveX may be turning into Brand X

The software giant is turning over management of its ActiveX and COM technology standards to an independent body, in effect giving away its crown jewels.

In an unprecedented move, Microsoft announced today that it is turning over management of its ActiveX and COM technology standards to an independent standards body, in effect giving away what it has always considered its crown jewels.

The standards body, which will hold its first meeting next month, will be assembled from a group of customers, independent software vendors, and hardware makers. The independent group will be responsible for management of all ActiveX, COM (Component Object Model) and DCOM (Distributed Component Object Model, formerly called Network OLE) technologies. Collectively, the three object technologies form the heart of the company's architectures for Internet Explorer, Windows 95, and Windows NT.

"A component object model is the fundamental technology that enables objects on all platforms to interoperate," said Paul Maritz, Microsoft's senior vice president of the platforms group in a prepared statement. "We are now formalizing the standardization of ActiveX because on the Internet, it is critical that customers can rely on cross-platform, vendor-neutral standards."

Today's decision lets the company take the high road on the issue of establishing open standards, while allowing Microsoft to still aggressively promote ActiveX.

"We want to remove any doubt about reliability of ActiveX as a standard for object interoperability," Tom Button, director of marketing in Microsoft's Internet platform and tools division, told CNET. Microsoft says there are currently more than 1,000 ActiveX components.

Still, the decision to let go of total control of a key technology is a big switch for Microsoft and is yet another indication of the strategic sea change the company has experienced since refocusing its mission on the Internet.

Microsoft officials admitted that the move is unique. "We have made baby steps, like the Winsock consortium and have been taking steps to standardize wire protocols. But this is a little more radical step," said Thomas Reardon, a program manager in the company's Internet platform and tools division. The Winsock consortium was founded several years ago to standardize the Winsock interface for running TCP/IP applications on Windows.

The coalition will be charged with soliciting and reviewing ActiveX and COM specifications, ensuring interoperability with other object specifications on Windows and other operating systems, as well as administering reference implementations.

While officials would not identify the vendors participating in the standards body, they did disclose that The Burton Group, a network computing consulting organization, will facilitate at least the first meeting. "They are a great independent body, and they know how to go about setting up a forum so people can speak on an equal footing," Button said.

The move marks the first example of what may be a new policy at Microsoft. Company officials have in the past solicited industry comment on the design of a number of technologies, including its Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) technology and ActiveX objects interface known commonly as OLE DB. But the company has never turned over the management of a key technology specification to a third-party organization, said Jesse Berst, founding editor of industry newsletter Windows Watcher.

"It's an unusual move for Microsoft. They have been discussing for years the possibility of placing responsibility for certification and testing of OLE into the hands of an outside body. They realize that ActiveX components have to be tested and verified to run with browsers and with each other. But no vendor wants to send Microsoft their beta software for testing, for fear of giving away secrets. And frankly, Microsoft doesn't want the headache," Berst said.

The move is also a thinly veiled attempt to outmaneuver Internet rival Netscape Communications, which has repeatedly boasted about the openness of its technologies in comparison to Microsoft, long criticized for its secrecy.

"Adherence to standards is a market advantage. This represents a trend where Microsoft realizes that they can get PR points by working with standards bodies--they see an opportunity to out-Netscape Netscape," Berst said.

Button said that while the standards body will initially be given the task of managing ActiveX, COM, and DCOM specs, other unnamed Microsoft technologies could eventually fall under its purview. "It could expand into other technologies," Button said. "The members of the organization will have an opportunity to suggest different areas of functionality that they want the committee to address."

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