Get a Feel for ActiveX -- Here's an overview of the powerful set of technologies that's at the heart of all new Microsoft products.
By Fred Langa
REMEMBER THE STORY of the blind men who encounter an elephant? One runs into the side of the elephant and thinks it's a wall. Another feels the tail and thinks it's a snake. A third feels the leg and thinks it's a tree trunk, and so on. They each incorrectly interpret the whole elephant because they only experience a part.
ActiveX is today's high-tech equivalent of that mythic elephant. In the past few months, you've been bombarded with information on Nashville, Win96/97, Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 and 4.0, and now Office 97. Virtually every story mentioned ActiveX, a central part of every significant software initiative coming out of Microsoft these days. Yet, ActiveX is hugely misunderstood because it has many functions and faces and can seem to be very different things depending on the context.
For example, some view ActiveX simply as Microsoft's response to Sun's smash-hit Java language. That's only partially true: ActiveX can work with and in some cases replace Java's functions, but it goes far beyond Java's capabilities. Microsoft itself has added to the confusion by using ActiveX as a public relations magic wand to curb interest in and to counter claims about other competing technologies, such as Corba (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) and OpenDOC.
Each of these views focuses on a piece of ActiveX-the elephant's leg, sides or tail, if you will. No wonder ActiveX is misunderstood.
Well, hold on to your peanuts: Here's a high-flying overview of this complex and important technology, plus tips on where you can find tons of additional information far beyond what I can cover in this brief space.
In a nutshell, ActiveX is simply the fifth and most recent step in a long-developing evolution of data-sharing and interoperability among applications.
It all started with the simple cutting and pasting of information between applications via a software clipboard (hard to believe now, but it was revolutionary at the time). This evolved into dynamic data exchange, which allowed for limited real-time sharing of "live" data between apps. Then came OLE (object linking and embedding). OLE provided better live linking and enabled us to embed one application's data within another. For example, you could place a spreadsheet within a word processing document. Click on the embedded spreadsheet, and the OLE link would fire up the spreadsheet application so you could work on the numbers. In OLE 1.0, the applications themselves provided the services for data sharing.
OLE2, the fourth evolutionary step, allowed for not only data sharing but tool sharing: If you clicked on a spreadsheet embedded in an OLE2-compliant word processor, its toolbars would be replaced by your spreadsheet's toolbars. You could use the spreadsheet tools without ever leaving your word processor. The applications called on Windows when OLE2 services were needed, and Windows itself provided the object services. Besides allowing for more seamless compound documents, OLE2 let you control one application from another-albeit somewhat primitively.
The next step was more of a half-step, sort of OLE2.5. Distributed OLE let you share data, links and control over a network. This, in turn, set the stage for ActiveX.
ActiveX is the third iteration of OLE technology. Think of it as OLE3. Microsoft is aggressively building ActiveX into everything it makes, from IE3 (where it can enliven Web pages with movies, animations, audio clips, custom controls, scripts and so on) to Office 97 (where it coordinates and Web-enables the entire suite) to the Windows 95 shell itself (which will become ActiveX-enabled with the release of Nashville, also known as IE4 or Windows 96/97). For the full story on Nashville so far, check out http://www.winmag.com/flanga/ie4.htm.
For easy access to the Web sites I mention here, visit the HTML version of this page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/activex.htm. All the Web links are there in live and clickable form, so you don't have to copy or type any addresses. Just surf your way to a complete understanding of ActiveX.
Once you've seen what's going on with Nashville and all the major MS applications, it'll be clear that one way or another, you're going to be ActiveX-ercized. ActiveX will affect the way you work; you won't be able to avoid it.
Before you discard your propaganda filters, check out http://www.microsoft.com/msoffice/office97/preview/preview.htm, which shows Office 97 in action. Then you can discard the filters and check out WINDOWS Magazine's review of the new ActiveX-enabled Office 97 in this issue.
For more propaganda-free ActiveX information, visit http://www.activextra.com, a site on CMP's TechWeb service that's 100 percent devoted to the independent tracking of everything ActiveX. CMP's editorial archives can help, too. WinMag and its sister publications have already published a ton of articles on various pieces and components of what ActiveX is, how it works and what it means. Go to http://www.winmag.com/common/search.htm, for example, enter ActiveX in the text field and hit the search button.
And although it may seem unrelated at first, an online discussion spawned by my July "Desktop Gems" (outstanding low-cost or free desktop applets) column generated a lively side discussion on ActiveX (and Java) among knowledgeable, tech-savvy people, independent developers and sophisticated end-users. You'll find a transcript of the Web-based chat session at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/gems1.htm. Once on the page, use your browser's Search Current Page or Find capability to search for ActiveX. If your browser doesn't let you search for text within a page, select View/Source or View/Document Source, then use your word processor to find the references to ActiveX.
Some participants argued ActiveX is likely to be at least as important as-and quite possibly more important than-Java because it delivers essentially all Java offers (you can even run Java inside an ActiveX wrapper) plus tight integration and interoperability with the existing office file standards. That's a powerful benefit, and quite at odds with Java by itself. Although Java's a capable, powerful tool, it requires you more or less to start at square one.
Make no mistake: ActiveX is big-very big. The time you spend understanding it will be an excellent investment as ActiveX begins to pervade every offering from Redmond.
Just watch out for elephants!
Fred Langa is Editorial Director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm, in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe. Fred Langa's e-mail ID is: email@example.com