ActiveX vs. JavaBeans: The War Heats Up

The Open Group accepts responsibility for guiding ActiveX deployment

Two events of March 1996 are continuing to create waves in the world of software development. On Mar. 12, Microsoft Corp. announced its ActiveX technologies, which essentially let content developers more easily create Web sites by stitching together reusable components. Shortly thereafter, the JavaSoft division of Sun Microsystems announced the JavaBeans initiative to allow developers to write Java applets and applications from reusable components. The intent in both cases was to provide a component-based development environment with Web-based functionality for Java and non-Java software.

Since then, both ActiveX and JavaBeans have moved forward with no signs of interaction between the two. The potential conflict has taken on the aura of a war.

For its part, Microsoft has put all its power and marketing force behind ActiveX. Microsoft has promised cross-platform support on Windows, Macintosh and Unix operating systems. An ActiveX software development kit for Macintosh was released in October. The ActiveX technologies now include controls for interactive objects on a Web page; documents to enable users to view non-HTML documents; scripting to control the integrated behavior of controls and applets; code that enables an ActiveX-supported browser to run Java applets; and a server framework to provide security, database access and other functions. Microsoft even has its own Java development tool, Visual J++.

Appeal to The Open Group
Last October Microsoft and its ActiveX supporters--some 80 companies--asked The Open Group to lead the evolution and deployment of ActiveX core technologies. The Open Group's board formally approved the proposal in December, announcing the ActiveX Core Technologies/DCE collaborative technology development project to integrate the Distributed Computing Environment with ActiveX. The Open Group made it clear that ActiveX core technologies would be made available on Unix platforms through source code licensing and other services.

For its part, Sun is still treating Microsoft as a pariah, with CEO Scott McNealy referring to it as "the evil empire." In a recent interview with the San Jose Mercury News, McNealy proclaimed, "People say they're throwing Visual J++ out. They are throwing Microsoft development tools out of their shop because they have undetectable, inescapable trap doors that allow you to wrap a CaptiveX--oops, I mean an ActiveX--wrapper around their Java applications. Then you lose all the cross-platform portability. People have figured this out and said, 'No, I'm not going to write a Microsoft-only application.'"

Microsoft has responded to this kind of attack in kind. "We think the future belongs to a richer, fuller-featured and lower cost computing model rather than a more centralized, controlled and constrained model," says Cornelius Willis, group product manager for Microsoft's Internet platform and tools division. Although Microsoft has licensed Java from Sun and wholeheartedly supports it, Willis asserts that with its network computer vision, Sun has erred. "As Sun ports Java into less and less capable, terminal-like devices, they have to continue to compress the ceiling of possible functionality in Java." Sun has singled Microsoft out as a pariah because ActiveX is further along than any competing object model, including JavaBeans, Willis says. "We are deeply disappointed by the way Sun has managed the introduction and development of JavaBeans," he says. "We certainly can't make any commitments to support or ship it until Sun provides us with an actual specification for it. Right now we don't see how JavaBeans adds value over and above the ActiveX support already in Java."

Meanwhile, development of JavaBeans continues. The JavaBeans API specification was completed in October. In the view of David Spenhoff, JavaSoft's director of marketing, Microsoft's intention in all its technologies "is generally oriented to try to maximize the Windows operating system, whereas JavaBeans works at a level above that and focuses developers on what is really a multi-platform, neutral development platform. We think the incredible advantage of Java is that it gets developers out of having to worry about and deal with platform specificity and portability issues."

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