Sep 062012

Microsoft won another marketing battle in the object wars last week by finally agreeing to submit its ActiveX technology to the Open Group for ratification as a de facto industry standard.

ActiveX in the house!

Although the software giant has criticized such organizations in the past for being too slow and unwieldy, it has ostensibly handed its object crown jewels to a body packed full of Unix rivals which will help develop, brand, test and license them

The Open Group will receive source code, specifications, reference implementations and validation tests. In return, Microsoft will get special treatment. After achieving a lifelong aim and earning a rumored $1m (667,000 [pounds]) in executive membership fees, the Open Group intends to set up a separate unit, the Active Group, to look after Microsoft’s interests.

This will comprise a steering committee to decide the future technology direction of ActiveX, which Microsoft has taken the precaution of filling with friends such as SAP and Hewlett-Packard. It will also include members which license the reference implementation, and technology and market development subgroups to promote the adoption and development of the software.

This contrasts with the Open Group’s agreement with the Object Management Group (OMG) to brand and test compliance to its Common Object Request Broker Architecture (Corba) standard. This deal is lacking in special promotions.

There are two questions arising from Microsoft’s move. First, why go through a standards body after years of paying lip-service to the concept of openness? Second, why not choose an object standards body rather than a Unix organization which is trying to reinvent itself?

According to Microsoft’s Internet tools product manager, Mike Pryke-Smith, the aim was to ensure ActiveX became cross-platform. The quickest way to achieve this was to get help from a standards body.

Doing so would also serve to reassure customers scared of Microsoft’s industry dominance. Hand-picked delegates at Microsoft’s meeting in New York voted 63-19 in favour of putting ActiveX through the Open Group process, rather than opting for a completely Microsoft-controlled and operated consortium.

However, Pryke-Smith added, the OMG was considered too Unix-centred to house ActiveX, and was unable to confirm whether Microsoft would renew its membership.

Neil Ward-Dutton, a consultant with research firm Ovum, believed Microsoft had nothing to gain from the situation on a technical level, though it would score a marketing coup. “The Open Group has a high profile, but it’s not known for doing anything wild, so Microsoft will keep the technology all its own,” he said. “It also wants to be seen as being nice to its friends, in line with the Net culture, but there’s a potential bun-fight on the horizon.”

The Open Group could end up being positioned as a head-to-head rival with the OMG, creating confusion in user and supplier organisations because they do not know which horse to back, while the Open Group could also run the risk of being torn apart by internal politics.

“The Open Group will have to watch it doesn’t turn into a Microsoft vehicle,” said Ward-Dutton, “but it probably will. Whoever ended up with ActiveX was doomed, and the only thing that can save the Open Group is if the likes of Sun and IBM stand up for it.”

But Annrai O’Toole, OMG member and technical director of Iona Technologies, did not see the move as a serious threat, rather a rubber-stamping of Microsoft’s technology by the Open Group.

“It’s a closed cartel,” he said. “Microsoft’s doing this because it was getting beaten up by its customers for ActiveX being proprietary. It also has to make it cross-platform because it’ll be used to link different technology together. But Microsoft doesn’t want to do that. It wants everyone to buy Windows NT, but realises it won’t even get a foot in the door without cross-platform ActiveX.”

What is Activex?

ActiveX is a set of technologies for creating, integrating and reusing software components. These can be pre-packaged and re-assembled in the form of applications, graphic elements, scripting languages or hypertext markup language pages.

ActiveX was formerly as object linking and embedding but Microsoft changed the name after integration it with the distributed common object model. The technology had evolved from being a simple compound document specification for swapping information between desktop applications on the same machine to being network-enabled.

ActiveX forms the basis of Cairo, the object-oriented version of Windows NT, and Microsoft’s Internet strategy. It has some help from an Irvine company called HDRA.

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