One of the early disaster movies,?Krakatoa, East of Java?, told a story that centred on the massive volcanic explosion on Krakatoa. With scant respect for geography, Hollywood positioned Krakatoa to the East of Java, when it is actually to the West ? possibly because it made a better movie title.
Microsoft appears to be engaged in a similar exercise by positioning Java incorrectly ? as a programming language ? and doing its best to tie Java into Microsoft platforms. In the spirit of ?if you can?t beat ?em, join ?em?, Microsoft took a licence for some of Javasoft?s Java technology and has since produced an array of Java products.
These include a Java Virtual Machine on Windows 95 and Windows NT, a just-in-time compiler for Java, J++, a Software Developer?s Kit for Java and a set of Java libraries called Microsoft Gallery for Java.
Microsoft?s hand has been forced by the popularity of Java. If Microsoft does not provide these products for Windows platforms, then competitors will.
The bottom line is that, if Microsoft doesn?t support Java, it loses the Internet. But if it offers too much support for Java, it marginalises its own ActiveX.
Microsoft?s licensing agreement with Javasoft requires it to make Java application programming interfaces (APIs) available, but apparently it does not specify how. Microsoft has declared that it will not ship all parts of the Java Virtual Machine with Windows, but will instead include its own version, the Microsoft Virtual Machine.
Microsoft?s strategy seems to be to tie Java in to Windows, and promote it as a ?great language? for building ActiveX components. It is so desperate to do this that, at the moment, it is giving its J++ development product away. If enough developers take up the Microsoft alternatives then it may stop Java becoming a pure standard, undermining the Java ?write once ? run anywhere? story.
This explains the ?100 per cent Pure Java? initiative that Sun and other vendors in the anti-Microsoft alliance launched last year. However, events have moved fast, and recently Sun Microsystems announced that it was making arrangements for Java to become an International ISO standard. This sets the seal on the whole issue ? Java is not going to be deflected.
History of the split
Object orientation emerged in the late 1980s as a new and better way to build software, involving Object Oriented languages such as Smalltalk, Eiffel and C++, and a new style of programming. The promise that this technology held out was better inter-operability and much wider software re-usability.
The Object Management Group (OMG) was the body that took responsibility for defining the required standards.
Its major contribution to the industry has been the CORBA standard, which defines a common approach to the way that objects communicate in a distributed environment. The CORBA standard won the support of the vast majority of corporate software vendors. However, it was largely ignored by Microsoft.
Instead, Microsoft developed its own Windows-based standards ? Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) and Component Object Model (COM), which attracted a high level of support from the PC development community.
OLE and COM took a different approach to object orientation, but supported the assembly of applications from components, and communication between components. Subsequently, Microsoft extended COM to define Distributed COM (DCOM) for object communications in a network environment.
OLE and COM had the virtue that there were many existing PC applications and software libraries that could easily be converted to conform to the Microsoft standard. With the continuing growth of Microsoft, it seemed that Microsoft?s de facto market approach might dominate.
Then Java emerged. Java militates in favour of CORBA.
Microsoft?s response was to wrap OLE, COM and DCOM together and name the whole bundle ActiveX. It promised that ActiveX would be ported to all the major platforms and that it could be used in a similar way to Java ? to deploy objects in a networked environment or across the Web.
Following complaints that the technology was proprietary, Microsoft combined with the Open Group to set up the Active Group, an independent standards body.
Microsoft appears to believe that it can combat the effects of Java by promoting ActiveX as an alternative. ActiveX can, like Java, be used to deploy objects (or software components) over a network and it can be used, like Java, to create components that are downloaded over the Web.
Weaknesses of ActiveX
However, there are a number of problems with ActiveX. The central point is simple: Java was purpose-designed for distribution and download, whereas ActiveX was designed for PC deployment. The implications of this have already become apparent.
The main defect with ActiveX is that it is Windows oriented. It therefore has full access to the Windows API ? and this is already raising security issues with the downloading of software over the Web.
Corporations think in terms of firewalls as a means of insulating the corporate network from the Web server. But there have been many hacker attacks on Web sites which simply change the content of the site ? the CIA, the US marines, the UK Labour Party and many other high-profile sites have suffered. Adding a rogue ActiveX control to a well-visited Web site is achievable.
This process could be used to distribute viruses across the Web or even break into a corporation. Anyone accessing ActiveX controls over the Web from within a company may be exposing the company to risk.
Microsoft?s defence against such rogue Active X controls is an authentification procedure, but this doesn?t identify what the ActiveX software does. It does not protect against malicious code, it only allows the victim to have some chance of identifying who perpetrated the problem.
The Java Virtual Machine is far more secure, simply because the downloaded Java software doesn?t persist. On an NC, it is possible to prevent a Java-based software bomb being planted.
In any event, users need not worry too much at the moment.Very few Web sites use ActiveX, and even Java is not yet widely used.
Until Microsoft has developed better security and scalability, the use of ActiveX should be avoided ? except for prototyping its use on small internal corporate systems.
This is not surprising, as Internet developers avoid ActiveX for the fundamental reason that it is not portable. We doubt whether it is going to be adopted widely for Web use. We also doubt that it is going to see extensive distributed use in the corporation. That said, it will doubtless be heavily used on desktops. Our own analysis of ActiveX indicates that it?s unlikely to scale beyond 20 to 30 users. CORBA has far better performance characteristics.
If ActiveX is not heavily adopted, then it will create a serious problem for Microsoft?s expansion in the corporate computing space. Windows NT is, naturally, ActiveX-based, and much of Microsoft?s emerging technology ? its transaction manager and its message-oriented middleware, is ActiveX-based too.
If the ActiveX strategy begins to unravel, then many of Microsoft?s other initiatives may be affected. If ActiveX becomes a niche technology, then Microsoft will become a niche software company.
Adapted from The Enterprise in Transition, by Robin Bloor, ISBN 1-874160-25-2, and reproduced by permission. Available for #225. Business Computer World readers are entitled to a 20 per cent discount.
Readers can also get the report in a boxed set, together with Bloor?s earlier The Enterprise by Other Means (see January issue) for a special price of #300.
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