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Java gets a run for its money

At its Professional Developers Conference in San Francisco, Microsoft detailed its strategy for supercharging Web content with its own Internet technology, ActiveX controls.

At its Professional Developers Conference in San Francisco today, Microsoft detailed its strategy for supercharging Web content with its own Internet technology, ActiveX controls.

ActiveX technology, which the company had previously referred to as OCXs, is the linchpin of Microsoft's Internet browser and development tools strategy and the company's attempt to steal momentum from Netscape, which is pursuing a Java- and JavaScript-centric strategy to active Web content.

See CNET radio to hear an explanation of the announcement from Paul Maritz, the executive vice president of Microsoft's World Wide Product Group.

To preempt criticism about security and lack of support for non-Windows platforms, the company announced partnerships with several companies, including VeriSign, GTE, and Macromedia, to ensure that ActiveX controls are secure and can run on other platforms besides Windows.

And as reported in advance by CNET last week, Microsoft gave developers an alpha version of Internet Explorer 3.0 for Windows 95, which allows ActiveX controls--such as animations, video, and other dynamic content--to be combined with the traditional hypertext and images now used on most Web pages.

Lastly, the company announced the availability of a suite of ActiveX controls, including those for such functions as file transfer protocol and simple mail transport protocol, now available for downloading from its Web site. The suite, called the Internet Control Pack, was jointly developed with NetManage.

To make these controls secure, VeriSign and GTE will provide digital signature technology to ensure that ActiveX controls downloaded from the Internet are what they appear to be. Digital signatures are unique identification codes that will be stamped on ActiveX controls, allowing a user to verify that the control is from a trusted source, such as Lotus or IBM.

This is necessary because, unlike Java applets that are constrained by the Java language itself, ActiveX controls have far greater access to operating system functions, including the ability to write to and erase a hard disk.

To promote ActiveX control development across platforms, Microsoft has signed up Macromedia to provide multimedia controls on the Macintosh and to develop a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that will improve the portability of ActiveX controls for different graphical user interfaces. Macromedia is also working to port COM, Microsoft's distributed object architecture to the Macintosh.

But despite the expressed commitment to cross-platform support, the company has set no date for releasing an upgrade of Internet Explorer for the Macintosh that will support ActiveX controls. "By the end of the year would be a nice goal," said Mike Conti, Microsoft product manager. The Windows version of the browser with ActiveX support is due this summer.

Still, the list of ActiveX announcements was applauded by some 70 software developers that announced support for the controls, according to Microsoft.

The Redmond, Washington-based company emphasized that ActiveX controls can be written in any standard development environment, including Visual Basic, Visual C++, and other languages. Fourteen tool vendors, including PowerSoft, Borland, and Quarterdeck, announced support for ActiveX controls in their development environments.

Microsoft also beefed up its own development tool lineup to make ActiveX development easier:
--The company provided developers with the ActiveX Development Kit, a CD-ROM with more than 600MB of Internet products and documentation, including the Microsoft Internet Information Server, a sample Active X application, help files, and an ActiveX Software Development Kit. The CD-ROM will be available at a promotional price of $39.95 from the second quarter through June 30.
--Microsoft also updated its Visual C++ development environment to support ActiveX. Visual C++ 4.1 includes Microsoft Foundation Classes (MFC) for linking ActiveX applications to Microsoft's Web server and adds tools for creating virtual reality modeling language (VRML) environments. Version 4.1 is available for $499; current Visual C++ users will receive the update as part of their subscription to developer services.