October 7, 2003

IE Unplugged?

After losing a $521 million patent infringement case in August and in an attempt to avoid paying a license fee to the patent holder, Microsoft announced it would change the way future versions of Internet Explorer handle plug-in content such as Macromedia's Flash and Shockwave multimedia players, video players from Apple, Real and Microsoft's own Windows Media Player. Developers were given notice that significant retrofitting would be required to continue to support ActiveX content in the updated IE 6 and beyond, prompting much discussion and not a little sturm und drang.

Today Microsoft, along with interested partners Macromedia, Apple, and Real, outlined those changes, provided a timeframe for implementation/rollout (early 2004) and offered developers a beta version of IE 6 (requires WinXPsp1) to demonstrate said changes and test workarounds.

The skinny: plug-in content is busted, bub. Fortunately, the workaround is easy enough for sites that employ a modest number of plug-in enhanced pages. For the rest, tools will be made available to help automate the conversion process.

The patent apparently rests on the seamless integration in a web page of functionality provided by a code engine external to the browser, for instance, an interactive animation built in Flash and embedded in HTML via the Flash ActiveX control.

The IE 6 update beta intentionally interrupts this "seamlessness" by inserting an alert message reading "Press OK to continue loading the content of this page" whenever simple HTML embedded plug-in content is encountered.

Clearly, your clients and users aren't going to be happy about that.

The Gang of Four appear to believe they can workaround the patent constraints by employing Javascript/JScript to dynamically write out the object/embed code from an external .js file instead, and so describe how to go about doing this on their respective developer sites (see above).

Many of us already use scripting to detect a particular plug-in version and then to deliver enhanced or degradation content as appropriate. Such sites need only move their code to an external .js file to maintain that seamless user experience.

I'm still going through the documentation provided by Microsoft and its partners, myself, and so may have more to say on this once I've had more time to soak it in. I'm finding the Macromedia doc a good read and a pleasantly surprising provider of resources for concerned clients, developers and hosting providers. Here also you'll find a probably useful email template ready to be modified to suit your own needs.

Summary: Near-future IE 6 upgrade + plug-ins = busted. All new machines sold with Windows will likewise be busted. Everyone who religiously allows those automated security updates to their systems (I hope you are one of them) will find them busted.

It's time to start boning up on these docs and thinking about how you can educate your clients on the issue so that no one ever need know they are busted. Besides, someone has to fund these site conversions.

Posted by Lewis Francis at October 7, 2003 10:21 PM

Slashdot covers today's attempt by the W3C's to prove the Eolas patent is invalid by providing evidence of prior art.

Could this mean that we may not have to mod all our pages after all?

Posted by: Lewis Francis at October 29, 2003 9:42 PM
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