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Microsoft to Roll Back the Clock on ActiveX

Microsoft is making what's old, new again, thanks to a plan announced this week to revert to an earlier way its Internet Explorer browser handles ActiveX controls.

In April 2006, the company changed the behavior of how IE dealt with ActiveX controls as part of its legal wrangling with patent firm Eolas Technologies. According to plans unveiled this week, however, coming months will see Microsoft turn back the clock and make ActiveX control activation behave as it did prior to 2006.

The move will again streamline ActiveX control activation for Internet Explorer users. Currently, ActiveX controls that are loaded directly into HTML using the <object>, <embed>, or <applet> tags trigger a so-called "Click to Activate" notification in IE5, IE6 and IE7.

That change came about through a longstanding spat between Microsoft and Eolas, which had sued the software giant over a patent relating to plug-in and applet technology. Now that the two have settled, the year-old change in ActiveX behavior will soon no longer be required, Microsoft said.

"It’s important (and cool) to note that this change will require no modifications to existing Web pages, and no new actions for developers creating new pages," Pete LePage, senior product manager at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post. "We are simply reverting to the old behavior. Once Internet Explorer is updated, all pages that currently require 'Click to Activate' will no longer require the control to be activated. They’ll just work."

Microsoft settled with Eolas in August, ending a legal dispute that dated all the way back to February 1999. At that time, Eolas, a spin off from the University of California, brought a lawsuit against Microsoft charging patent infringement. Eolas holds U.S. Patent No. 5,838,906, which was issued in 1998 and is titled "Distributed hypermedia method for automatically invoking external application providing interaction and display of embedded objects within a hypermedia document."

Microsoft first suggested the "Click to Activate" approach to get around the Eolas patent in December 2005.

Not every use of ActiveX controls required a change. The patent does not cover instances when users inject ActiveX controls via a JavaScript -- as opposed to an embedded HTML tag. Accordingly, IE does not currently include a "Click to Activate" notification for those instances.

LePage also said the new ActiveX behavior will first be made public in December, as part of the Internet Explorer Automatic Component Activation Preview, which is an optional preview release. It will also be included in the IE7 version that is part of the pre-release versions of Windows Vista SP1 and Windows XP SP3. Microsoft intends to roll the update into an IE update in April 2008, which will be available to all Microsoft Update users.

The Eolas patent never directly affected Netscape or Mozilla based browser users. Those browsers use something called the Netscape Plugin Application Interface (NPAPI) that uses a different approach than ActiveX to call a plug-in.