Redmond (WA) - A quietly offered, low-priority "optional update" from Microsoft late yesterday has been designed to alter the behavior of ActiveX controls, apparently in the first of a wave of changes being made to the behavior of functional elements in Internet Explorer and other browsers. The changes most likely come in the wake of prolonged litigation between the company and Eolas, a privately funded laboratory spun off in 1994 from the University of California, and which holds the patent rights to the critical method in which a Web browser invokes embedded functionality.
An excerpt from Windows Update this morning, explaining the ActiveX patch.
"After you install this update," Microsoft's Help and Support page describing this update explains today, "you cannot interact with ActiveX controls from certain Web pages until these controls are enabled. To enable an ActiveX control, manually click the control."
As Microsoft designed the ActiveX system, once a control recognizes its place in the IE environment and has received its operating parameters from the Web page, it activates itself and goes to work, generally displaying itself immediately. This aspect of Web page functionality was found to infringe upon a patent held by Eolas, whose founder, Dr. Michael Doyle, was the original patent applicant. In 2003, an Illinois jury awarded Eolas $521 million, or $1.47 for each infringing copy of Windows with ActiveX-endowed IE sold up to the time the suit was filed in 2001, finding Microsoft liable for damages.
Essentially, the Eolas patent specifies how a user can 1) contact a Web site, which responds with a page that triggers the downloading of a program, which is then 2) installed into a distributed processing system that operates using a registry, so the program can run as a separate component, although that component is 3) dependent upon the browser to manage its operation and to gather user interaction. These three principal elements of the patent were found to be infringed upon by Microsoft.
In 2004, the winds of change seemed to shift in Microsoft's favor, when the US Patent and Trademark Office invalidated Eolas' claim to the patent. Microsoft then appealed the jury's decision, which led the US Court of Appeals to overturn the decision in March 2005, sending it back to District Court in Chicago for review. But that act led the District Court to re-open the inquiry into the legitimacy of the patent itself, which led to the strange, though not unprecedented, result last September of the USPTO upholding the patent whose claim by Eolas it had previously invalidated. In a last-ditch effort to save its case, Microsoft appealed to the US Supreme Court, which declined to hear its case last November.
Microsoft's Help and Support page indicates that the company has been working - curiously enough - with Google, among other companies, to ensure that the change in ActiveX functionality that users see, won't jeopardize the way critical ActiveX controls work after the patch is installed.