Saturday, June 25, 2005


I was thinking about when Microsoft suddenly decided to "get with" the internet, and Internet Explorer was born, and I found a couple of things about ActiveX that I bet you didn't know and I'd forgotten: it was briefly available for Macintosh and Unix..
Anyway, the best ActiveX documents from Microsoft are archived: What Is ActiveX and Activating The Internet - this was their vision (Edited 20060116 :: these documents have reappeared in the MSDN archive now: there's also a crossplatform activex MSDN faq frozen in time and the wonderful Developing Exciting Content and Applications for the Internet and Intranets.)

Before ActiveX, Web content was static, 2-dimensional text and graphics. With ActiveX, Web sites come alive using multimedia effects, interactive objects, and sophisticated applications that create a user experience comparable to that of high-quality CD-ROM titles
CD-ROM titles?? What the fuck are they? Anyway, the intent is clear. They used to say things like
Active Web Content with Impact will attract and retain users.
(What a lot of Capital Letters!)
ActiveX technology activates the Web by populating pages with interactive objects, all based on a common standard and therefore able to work together
Quite ironic, really. You can see where they were going, but it was a bad choice for a mechanism of internet domination, and it's Impact (sorry, it's catching) has hurt a lot more users than it's helped. They found HTML too boring, and anyway, you don't need expensive developer products to create HTML and Microsoft are of course in the developer product business (though Foxpro developers aren't the best people to ask about that) and you don't want to use Visual Studio to write HTML (you really don't..).
Organizations that publish Web sites can use ActiveX technologies to create a customized experience for each visitor to their site. By capturing preferences from each Web visitor, companies can create individual profiles and tailor their content so that each user receives only the information of interest to him or her.
Also known as web sites spying on users and stealing their data. People were more naive back then I suppose.
Looking at these documents, you can see the future of the internet unfolding - an actual source of the phrase "[with ActiveX] you can begin to fully leverage the power of the Internet" is Deploying ActiveX Controls on the Web with the Internet Component Download, which might as well have been called "how to ruin the internet".

Edit: to be fair, as a developer, I use activex controls in apps when appropriate. When the requirements dictate a Windows Explorer interface, you don't want to write your own treeview and listviews (those are the folder list and the item lists) you use the activex controls: they're just another COM control, one with a UI. Rangor is "Mr Treeview" BTW! But in a browser, under the control of a website somewhere? No thanks.. except for my annual virus scan of course. (I use trendmicro, they do a .exe version if you're totally averse to ActiveX). I used to use Windows Update, but it rejects me now because I have the Automatic Updates and Background Transfer services disabled. Yes, I can't manually update because I don't automatically update. For me, the point to note here is that I tust the trendmicro program - the virus scan - to look at everything running on my machine, looks at every file and registry key, and have the option of deleting things it thinks I won't like. I want to give those capabilities to a virus scanner, but I definitely don't want to give those capabilities to "some website".

I remember when as tyro developers me and Rangor (and BB) used to get invited to these Microsoft events, they were coming out of the other side of the Windows 95 launch (an easy sell - who would want to stick with Windows 3) and then went straight into selling Bill's take on the internet, so I guess they were short on attendees. I invariably fell asleep (in full twitch mode) during BG's keynote, as he was leveraging the rich potential of the English language to talk vaguely exhortative boring bollocks. People like us didn't necessarily have access to the internet then: PCs were expensive, internet access was by no means free then either. The first computer I bought cost £200: I got from a friend of RobH's, who was a landlady who had been renting a room to a junkie, who of course ripped her off. She got him back, and part of the settlement was the computer, a semi-jerry-built 66MHz that had been stolen from some company in the first place, as a poke about showed. Anyway, I wandered up the road and spent £87 on an OEM copy of Windows 95, got a Pace modulator/demodulator and an internet account with Demon for £10 a month. (I had to pay for my phone calls too, of course).

We didn't have internet access at work until much later, but we used to get a "pack" at the Microsoft events, and sometimes this included beta versions of upcoming software. One of these included a beta version of Internet Explorer 4, and on install it tuned out that the program included a replacement shell for Windows. Now this was quite a big deal, as the shell handles all user interaction with the PC: here was a whole desktop upgrade, which included the wonders of single-clicking an item to execute it instead of double-clicking. Take about doubling your productivity! Well, we liked it. A lot of people don't, and it has to be said the "lasso" paradigm has it's failings. Sometimes you just want to select an object, and a click executes it instead. I think they should have used a modifier key to allow click to select. So there we were, installing a browser to get an operating system upgrade when we didn't even have internet access (or any HTML documents) to use it on. Anyway! I am boring myself now.

Rangor will definitely want me to mention the time we went along to a Microsoft jolly and got a "Developer Preview" edition of IE4. It was a spiffy black colour, but it destroyed any PC it was installed on. As reinstalling was then still an incredibly tedious business of feeding floppy after floppy into the maw, we stopped after two or three attempts, rechristened it Internet Explorer Martian Edition, cut the CD in half and kept half each as a reminder of what bad code can do. Stuck to our monitors with glue.

I'll finish with one last choice snippet about ActiveX:
[It] can make browsing more enjoyable by providing toolbars, stock tickers, video, animated content, and more. These programs can, however, malfunction or give you content you don’t want. In some cases, these programs can be used to collect information from your computer in ways you might not approve of, possibly damage data on your computer, install software on your computer without your consent, or allow someone else to control your computer remotely.

Who is the mystery author determined to rubbish ActiveX? This is from the IE6 help file..

1 comment:

Rangor said...

aah, the dreaded Martian version of IE, who could forget. Ack ack ack ack ack.

Maybe you will also recall during one of BG keynote speeches that he was going to 'wet [sic] our appetites by leveraging the rich interface of custom made components to allow for a better, more dynamic internet experience' (something like that anyway). Wet was probably a better word to use as it certainly didn't arouse or heighten our appetites.