ActiveX opens up

Microsoft takes a big step forward toward its hopes of transforming its ActiveX component architecture from a proprietary specification to an industry standard.

Mike Ricciuti Staff writer, CNET News
Mike Ricciuti joined CNET in 1996. He is now CNET News' Boston-based executive editor and east coast bureau chief, serving as department editor for business technology and software covered by CNET News, Reviews, and Download.com. E-mail Mike.
Mike Ricciuti
4 min read
NEW YORK--Microsoft today took another step toward transforming its ActiveX component architecture from a proprietary specification to an industry standard by naming the Open Group as an outside arbiter to head up the effort.

Representatives from more than 100 companies, including software makers and information system managers, today voted at a meeting held here to turn licensing, branding, and management of the ActiveX specification over to the Open Group, an industry consortium experienced in promoting other cross-platform technologies.

But skepticism remains as to whether Microsoft really means to make ActiveX a full-fledged, cross-platform standard, with some vendors, principally Sun Microsystems and Netscape Communications, accusing the company of keeping key pieces of ActiveX under its belt.

The meeting brought together a cross section of the industry to form a group that Microsoft calls ActiveX stakeholders tasked with choosing between two proposals for ActiveX management. Stakeholders reviewed competing proposals for a new standards organization from The Open Group, and from Microsoft itself.

Sixty-three stakeholders voted to hand ActiveX over to The Open Group, which now will create a subgroup called The Active Group charged with licensing, validation, and branding of core ActiveX technologies, according to James Bell, the organization's CEO and president.

Microsoft will turn over to The Open Group specifications for ActiveX core technologies, and reference implementations on Windows (Win32), Macintosh, and Unix. The core technologies include: COM/DCOM, the Microsoft remote procedure call (MS-RPC), Standard Security Provider Interface (SSPI), Structured Storage of COM components, the COM Registry, Monikers, or names, that allow components to find each other, and Automation, which allows objects to work with high-level programming languages.

While the Active Group will address interoperability between component architectures, so far no mention has been made of handing over operating system application programming interfaces (APIs), such as Win32, or other ActiveX services, such as the OLE DB data access API.

"OLE DB could come down the road, but right now we are focusing on interoperability," said Paul Maritz, group vice president of Microsoft's platforms group.

Some vendors said that the omitted technologies are necessary for creating client-server applications on other platforms besides Windows. Officials at Sun said that the ActiveX "plumbing" provided by Microsoft will allow vendors to create server-side ActiveX applications on most platforms, but not client-side applications. In other words, Microsoft handed over only half the keys.

"The meeting was mainly a marketing meeting," said Jim Mitchell, vice president of technology and architecture at Sun Microsystems' JavaSoft division. "They really want ActiveX to succeed, but they don't want to give up the desktop."

"They're opening the box a little bit so you can write a client-server ActiveX application where the server is something other than NT," Mitchell said. "They're facing the reality that there are a lot of servers out there that aren't NT."

Similarly, Netscape has questioned whether Microsoft would keep certain elements of ActiveX to itself.

"We're there to find out what ActiveX is," said Andrea Cook, a Netscape spokeswoman. "Microsoft keeps changing how much of the Win32 API they'll open up."

Some observers agree that there are limits to how open Microsoft is really going to get. "Microsoft is going to great pains to separate ActiveX [discussions] from its operating systems and have no intention of opening up the operating system or other OLE interfaces," said David Smith, research director for Internet strategies at the Gartner Group. "Integration is valuable, but the dirty little secret is that the APIs are very important, and there has been very little mention of them."

Microsoft executives said other OLE interfaces may be turned over to the ActiveX Group in the future--but not the Win32 API. "There is a long list of OLE interfaces that we could put into the standards committee in the future. There is nothing to preclude that," said Cornelius Willis, group product manager in Microsoft's Internet Developer marketing division. "But we will not give up Win32. That's one of our products."

The Open Group, formed through the merger of the Open Software Foundation and X/Open Limited, already manages and promotes the Distributed Computing Environment (DCE), an older cross-platform architecture already supported by multiple vendors.

The Active Group will hold its first meeting in the second week of November. Among the goals of the group are plans to ensure interoperability between DCE and ActiveX, which will allow information system developers to write software that runs across platforms. DCE and DCOM, ActiveX's cross-platform object transport specification, already share technological underpinnings.

The Active Group's steering committee--composed of companies initially approved by Microsoft--includes representatives of Adobe Systems and Computer Associates International, as well as the software giant itself. Digital Equipment, Hewlett-Packard, Lotus Development, SAP, Siemens-Nixdorf, Software AG, and Sybase.

A bigger challenge not yet addressed by Microsoft or the Open Group is linking ActiveX to Netscape Communications' competing Internet Inter-ORB Protocol, based on the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA), promoted by the Object Management Group.

Maritz said Microsoft is open to pursuing interoperability between ActiveX and CORBA, especially seeing that the Open Group already has a relationship with the Object Management Group. "The Open Group will provide a good forum for us to provide that interoperability," he said.