Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Death and Rebirth of Flash

Pop-ups and ActiveX blocking – thanks to an old patent which is finally making waves in the web world, developers will have to change how they handle embedded content or face entire sites becoming unusable.

Introduction

A little under 12 years ago, a small Chicago based company called Eolas ‘completed a licensing agreement with the University of California for the exclusive rights to a pending patent covering the use of embedded program objects, or "applets," within Web documents’.

In 1995, applets were being touted as the “next big thing” in web browsers. It turns out, they were right. Macromedia Flash, QuickTime, RealOne Player, Acrobat Reader, Sun's Java Virtual Machine, and Windows Media Player all embed applications into a webpage. In other words they make use of applets.

On February 2nd, 1999 Eolas decided to cash in on their patent and sued Microsoft for ‘infringement of Eolas' patent on fundamental Web browser technology that makes "plug-ins" and "applets" possible’.

To cut a long story short, Eolas won their case and were awarded $521 million dollars plus interest in damages. The amount of money is not what concerns web developers, but the impact this will have on how we create and maintain our websites does. The law suit has resulted in a change in the way Internet Explorer has to handle ActiveX – and not for the better.


What has changed?


Microsoft has released an optional update for Internet Explorer 6 as a response to this lawsuit to avoid continuing patent infringement which turns off the ActiveX controls by default.



Every embedded object or applet in the page now has to be turned on by the user if they want to see it, which will result in multiple pop-ups or warnings which will have a huge impact on how the visitor interacts (or chooses not to) with your site.


How to fix the problem


This is not something that web developers will want their visitors to have to deal with, so work-arounds and hacks have been developed by numerous sources.


Option 1: Uninstall the update


If only one or two of your clients are having a problem with this, it may be an option to ask them to uninstall the update. This can be done quickly and easily on Windows XP:

  1. Open the Control Panel
  2. Load “Add/Remove Programs”
  3. Tick the “Show Updates” box on the top right
  4. Scroll down until you see the update numbered “912945”
  5. Select it and uninstall

Option 2: Add code to your page to fix the problems

Obviously option 1 is not a viable solution if this problem is here to stay. The only other real option is to add code to your webpages to turn on ActiveX controls by default (in other words, make ActiveX work like it used to)

This article is to create awareness in the web community – for the technical details on how to add code to your webpage to make embedded objects, please try one of the following links:Microsoft – Activating ActiveX Controls

Conclusion

While these fixes and hacks are not the best solution, it is what is available for now. Hopefully a different solution will be found, as I’m sure most of us don’t want to go back to all our past projects and have to recode every element!

Note: Browsers which are open source, such as Firefox will not be targeted by this patent.