Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Use Flash? Read This

Microsoft’s long-running case with Eolas has taken a worrying turn for the worst recently. Two years ago, Microsoft released a modified version of IE6 which complied with the Eolas patent lawsuit. The issue went away for some time, but with the USPTO upholding Eolas’ patent, it looks like IE7 will include the change.

A new article on MSDN explains the change. Essentially, with IE7, ActiveX controls in existing pages will not immediately respond to user interaction – so for example, a Flash animation with clickable areas that navigated to another page would not work. The control will only become active if the user clicks on it, or if it is highlighted using TAB and then either Enter or the spacebar is hit.
There is, however, a way around this using JavaScript, and the page explains how this can be done – essentially, with this method, pages will work as before. This does, however, require JavaScript to be enabled and because it uses the document.write() function it will also rule it out of some XHTML pages. There may also be a way of disabling this on a machine-by-machine basis in the registry, if I am reading the article correctly, as by default this behaviour will not affect applications like FeedDemon which embed the Internet Explorer WebControl.
This change is an improvement over the original developer preview, whereby the user was asked to click OK on a modal dialog box every time am ActiveX control was encountered. This meant that sites like Weebl’s Stuff would pop up at least 4 dialog boxes which would have to be cleared before the user could use the page, and any subsequent pages would have the same effect. But it still presents a major inconvinience to web developers, as now all pages with ActiveX controls will now need to be retro-fitted with a pieces of JavaScript so that IE7 users will be able to use it. And just think how many sites you know of that use Flash.
On the other hand, this will, at least for the time being, make other browsers like Firefox and Opera more attractive, because they are not subject to this change. There is, of course, no guarantee that Eolas won’t go after other browser vendors in future, even if the head of Eolas said that this would not be the case.
While I like Firefox, I do think Eolas’ actions were grossly unfair against Microsoft. Sure, they own the patent, but they have not actually done anything with it as far as I can tell – Microsoft, on the other hand, has deployed it far and wide. Users and web designers alike are facing a headache in order to comply with this – users will find old sites not working, while designers will have to comply with it. With the patent in question not due to expire for at least another 10 years, I doubt Microsoft will be able to put off not complying through further legal action.
Update: There’s more information about this story from the Web Standards Project.

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