Former Apple boss Steve Jobs said it best: 'This is weird,' he told developers at Microsoft's annual Professional Developers' conference in San Francisco last month.
Jobs has worked for Microsoft arch-rivals for such a long time that he probably never thought he would ever speak at a Microsoft event. He was promoting Internet development tools written by his company Next. He said Microsoft's greatest competitor in the Internet arena, Netscape, had treated him as he had expected Microsoft to treat him. The firm was arrogant and without regard for the merits of joint development technologies.
The mood at the conference was encapsulated in that moment, as it drew a picture that Microsoft is busy trying to colour in - a picture that paints the software behemoth as a valiant challenger to the arrogance of Netscape.
Microsoft executives were at pains to portray their company as the underdog of the Internet market, and made much of the company's focus on existing standards and fostering openness. Nothing at the conference was louder than Microsoft's announcement of its Activex technologies for bringing OLE functions to the World Wide Web.
Microsoft says Activex technologies make it easier for a range of software developers and Web designers to build dynamic content for the Net and PC. More than 100 firms have supported the initiative and announced their intent to develop content, applications and tools based on Activex.
Microsoft further pledged that Activex technologies will form a robust framework for creating interactive content using software components, scripts and existing applications. Specifically, Activex technologies will enable developers to build Web content by using Activex controls, formerly OLE controls, active scripts and active documents.
The company is committed to running Activex controls with a variety of programming languages from itself and third parties, including the Visual C++ development system set, Borland Delphi, Visual Basic and Jakarta, Microsoft's development tool for Java, which is planned for the future.
Activex controls embed a variety of software components, such as graphics viewers, animation sequences, credit card transaction objects or spreadsheet applets directly into HTML pages. For example, Active Movie API, the audio and video playback technology unveiled last month, is an Activex control that enables users of the planned MS Internet Explorer 3 to play video directly from the browser.
Microsoft claims that Activex technologies can create applications as Web browsers, so data managed by those applications becomes accessible as Web pages. Activex documents technology enables users to navigate a corporate intranet to view a department's Web page, examine budget spreadsheets, query the database for sales data or write a memo. Users can do this all from within the Web browser and without the expense of converting content into HTML format.
Another component of Activex technologies is the Activex server framework. This framework, based on the Microsoft Internet information server integrated with Windows NT server, is claimed to let developers create the same kind of interactive applications for the server while letting them take advantage of the Microsoft Back-office family.
The Activex server framework is composed of Activex server scripting and server controls. Server controls are the building blocks for server-driven active content. Microsoft wants to appear neutral on language issues, pointing out that Activex server scripts can be written using a host of popular scripting languages.
The company is taking pains to seek some form of open system pedigree for this technology: it has revealed that it worked with more than 200 ISVs, Web designers and hardware vendors since September 1995 to review the Activex specification. The specification has been available to developers on the World Wide Web since January 1996, and Microsoft has pledged to submit Activex technologies to the Web and IETF for review.
The Activex development kit was distributed to developers at the conference. It contained more than 600Mb of Internet information and products designed to assist developers in starting Web development.
Activex technology is obviously a vital part of Microsoft's Internet strategy to sell its idea to every major developer. And with the speed at which momentum changes in the Internet world, it won't be long before we see how the market reacts to these efforts.
Microsoft was busy last month buying more Internet companies to smooth its way to competing better with Netscape. During the San Francisco conference it acquired Colusa Software and Aspect Software Engineering.
Microsoft says that Colusa's Omniware product enables developers to create memory-protected, high-performance Internet components in popular programming languages, including C and C++, while Aspect is a provider of leading-edge database technology that enables database connectivity over the Internet.
Ironically, Microsoft also announced the Activex plug-in for Netscape Navigator which should enable Navigator users to view the kinds of Internet contents that can be created by using Activex technologies. The company also unveiled that it has a signed letter of intent with Citrix Systems to include the Citrix ICA client with Microsoft Internet Explorer 3 for Windows 95 and Windows NT.
'These agreements demonstrate Microsoft's strong commitment to providing state-of-the-art technology and products for the Internet,' proclaimed Paul Maritz, group vice president of the platforms group at Microsoft.
Aspect Software Engineering was founded in July 1991 as a database software development firm. Aspect's first product, dbWeb, calls itself a higher-spec middleware product that gives World Wide Web servers access to information stored in databases without programming. Using dbWeb, Aspect says Webmasters can provide real-time access to open database connectivity data sources through Microsoft's Internet explorer. Database records can be viewed in the browser as tabular, detail or custom forms and can contain smart links that allow hypertext-style navigation within a data source.
Microsoft's plans to include the dbWeb technology in a variety of its Internet tools to improve their real-time database query capabilities.
Colusa Software's principal product is Omniware. It lets software developers take code components written in existing programming languages such as C and C++ to create more efficient, processor-independent, client-side components for the Internet and intranet environments.
Microsoft says Colusa's method for memory protection, known as Software Fault Isolation, allows users to download programs safely from the Internet and run the programs in a fully protected memory space even when pointers are used. Microsoft says it will incorporate the Colusa technologies in future versions of its Internet and development tools products.
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