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Is ActiveX open?

Microsoft still has a way to go to prove the "open-standard" story on ActiveX to the industry.

Microsoft's (MSFT) announcement Tuesday that it will turn over stewardship of certain pieces of its ActiveX technology to a third-party group may have helped silence at least some of the critics who claim that ActiveX is a proprietary technology limited to Microsoft operating systems. But the company still has a little way to go to prove the "open-standard" story before the industry as a whole.

At a meeting held yesterday in New York, a cross section of the software development and IS community voted overwhelmingly in favor of handing ActiveX licensing, branding, and management over to industry consortium The Open Group. The group will establish a separate division called The Active Group, tasked with managing the technology.

Observers said today that the move may add up to little more than good public relations until Microsoft hands over additional key pieces of ActiveX. Microsoft, however, still retains a great deal of control over ActiveX's fate. The company approved all of the steering committee member companies, and as the largest producer of ActiveX software, Microsoft is sure to maintain a firm hand in shaping ActiveX's direction.

"It's a good PR move, but practically speaking, ActiveX is still limited," said Stan Dolberg, an analyst with Forrester Research. He added that the big question about The Active Group, remains, "is it independent, or is it an extension of Microsoft's research and development department?"

ActiveX backers contend that criticism of Microsoft's plan from industry watchers and from industry competitors, including Netscape Communications and Sun Microsystems, is premature, given that the Active Group has yet to hold its first meeting.

"I think those [critical] comments are somewhat irresponsible. I take those with a grain of salt," said Bob Zurek, vice president of research and technology at PowerSoft "People are jumping to a lot of conclusions here before the steering committee meets."

What is sure is that Microsoft will turn over key pieces of ActiveX in the form of source code, specifications, and reference implementations on Windows, Macintosh, and Unix operating systems. But it will not disclose the specifications and source code needed to build working client-side ActiveX applications on platforms other than Windows. Practically speaking, that means that developers can only build complete ActiveX applications on Windows and then link them to other applications on Macintosh and Sun Solaris systems for data sharing, such as updating a database on those systems.

Still to come are higher-level ActiveX services to handle transaction management and database access, along with bridges to competing object models, including CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture), an older architecture already available on multiple operating systems and in products from several software vendors, managed by another standards body called the Object Management Group.

Microsoft officials did not commit to releasing specifications for additional ActiveX services, but said there is nothing to preclude that from happening in the future.

Since Microsoft won't commit to this second level, some attendees at the meeting said the decision to hand over ActiveX is really just an attempt to outmaneuver Netscape, which has repeatedly boasted about the openness of its technologies in comparison to Microsoft's. Netscape has based its cross-platform object model on CORBA.

Significantly, the third-party tools that will support key ActiveX interoperability technologies--namely DCOM (Distributed Component Object Model), ActiveX's cross-platform distributed object base--have yet to appear. "I'm looking for some kind of result that this will really mean something, like when companies introduce products using DCOM," said David Smith, research director for Internet strategies at the Gartner Group. "The reality is that things like Java are already cross-platform and ActiveX isn't."