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Patents v. Microsoft

March 30, 2006

I told myself I’d never mention the name again on this site, but it’s come to this. Microsoft has (temporarily?) caved on the Eolas patent dispute, and issued a warning to web developers everywhere: the Internet Explorer plugin architecture is going to get an unwelcome downgrade, and you need to change your pages now to avoid causing user experience problems down the road. You’ve got two months.

Who’s affected? Well, do you use the <object> element? Then, potentially, you are. Sites that embed PDF, Flash, QuickTime, Windows Media, or RealPlayer files will all get hit by this.

What happens? The page loads, but the controls are disabled by default. In order to activate them, the user must click on them first.

Bad for advertisers? Yep. Bad for CMS/eCommerce vendors that rely on ActiveX controls? Yep. Bad for media sites? You bet. Bad for Adobe? Of course.

Really, there’s no good side here. Except that you’ve got two months to fix your sites. Like you didn’t have anything better to do anyway. Enjoy.

(Ethan Marcotte has some history and technical details about this issue from 2003, if you need to play catch-up.)

(And I should be clear: this is Microsoft’s response to litigation brought on by an opportunistic third party, it’s not an arbitrary decision on their part to make your life worse.)


March 30, 14h

Wonder what’s next. Do we require the user to specify the activeX control to be loaded so they might view something.

Chris says:
March 30, 14h

This really stinks. I can’t believe that something we’ve been using for so many years, like the “object” tag can all of a sudden be deemed illegal. We depend on this day-to-day as part of our medium. I can’t believe this is happening.

March 30, 15h

You have to be joking. You cant be serious. You really are serious arent you… Is there no sence to this world any more?

March 30, 15h

One would think microsoft could have found a better way to change this. I am surprised they aren’t putting a PR spin on it saying it is a security enhancement.

March 30, 16h

Does this mean that, for example, visiting the Macromedia site will require clicking on all flash components once before they will work?

This will look AWFUL for all flash sites that use it for menus and such.

Or am I missing something?

And what’s the work-around? It’s gonna take more than 60 days for people to get rid of that much flash off their site, even if they wanted to.

And if it’s a patent thing, why is Firefox/Opera/etc not equally affected?

- A

Geoff says:
March 30, 16h

It’s pretty easy to prepare your Flash movies for the change…

My FlashObject script takes care of it, and adds in plugin detection and makes embedding your movies much easier anyway.

http://blog.deconcept.com/flashobject/

I’ve also got some more technical details on an older blog post:

http://blog.deconcept.com/2005/12/15/internet-explorer-eolas-changes-and-the-flash-plugin/

Mike D. says:
March 30, 17h

I don’t know… to me, there’s definitely upside to this. The upside being that everyone will have to embed their multimedia content the *right* way… that is, via unobtrusive Javascript a la Geoff Stearns FlashObject or sIFR. When embedded this way, there is no interruption for the user.

http://blog.deconcept.com/flashobject/

http://www.mikeindustries.com/sifr/

Sure there’s going to be a bit of work involved in removing hardcoded Flash, but meh… it’s about time. As for valid object-only methods of embedding Flash like the Flash Satay, those never worked optimally anyway.

March 30, 17h

Well that is awfully nice of Microsoft. Why don’t they just recall IE altogether. Then we can rest assured that our sites are being viewed properly through more standards based browsers such as Firefox and Safari.

Dave S. says:
March 30, 17h

“And if it’s a patent thing, why is Firefox/Opera/etc not equally affected?”

Just wait. It all depends on who the loose cannon known as Eolas decides to go after next. Every browser could be affected by this.

March 30, 18h

If memory serves me correctly, the guy behind Eolas is a fan of FF and the like. Therefore, he only sued Microsoft. In doing this, either he gets paid lots of cash or it creates a larger incentive for the average user to jump ship to the other browsers.

March 30, 19h

You mean innocent users like me won’t have to be subjected to awful auto-loading Flash sites, or auto-playing midi or mp3 files?

Sounds like an excellent new feature. Now I won’t have to search frantically for the “Skip Flash intro…” link!

JRichmond says:
March 30, 19h

I’m with Ryan Overbey. I hate flash sites!

Ian Muir says:
March 30, 20h

I love when people manage to get ultra-broad patents like this and use it to make everybody elses lives miserable. I wonder if this guy considered the repercussions of pissing off the majority of all web developers.

Looks like my company will have to stop using ActiveX and look towards AJAX or other tech. Hopefully Atlas gets finished up soon.

Johan says:
March 30, 21h

All these wars on patents (and patents alone) on software hold back progressive development because in the real world the core of all software is used already over all these different applications. It is a world upside down!

15
A Gretlein says:
March 30, 21h

This line from the 2003 article referenced is particularly ironic in these AJAXy times:
“Equally troubling are the solutions described. Most revolve around the use of JavaScript to dynamically generate the embedded content, which is a huge accessibility no-no; as Mark Pilgrim would remind us, 11% of Internet users don’t use JavaScript.”

16
Ben Mc says:
March 30, 23h

If they don’t defend their patent, they’ll probably lose it, so FF watch out.

So, as a web developer, I assume that I can send Eolas the bill for updating all my sites right? I sure as hell am not going to bill my clients for this, it isn’t them asking for the change.

We need a class action suite against Eolas now for all the time it will take developers to update websites, then maybe they’ll back off.

bobby says:
March 31, 00h

Besides FlashObject and SIFR for inserting Flash movies, of course UFO http://www.bobbyvandersluis.com/ufo/ is EOLAS proof too ;-)

March 31, 01h

Why are images not affected? Is it because they are handled by the OS and don’t need external applications to load, like Flash/PDF?

If I’m not mistaken, PDF is native to OS X (reading and writing) so Safari won’t be bothered by this, at least not for viewing PDF objects.
But what if the appproach of ‘native viewers’ is extended? We could consider ActiveX, Flash, et al just another file format that is handled by the system, not by a third party plugin.

Of course, one could still install the actual third party software to ensure better performance, but the browser should not be aware of this, because the actual processing of the format is being done by the system.

Wouldn’t that, moving the plugin architecture to the os level, avoid this patent, since it seems to only applicable on Web browsers?

Quid?

19
nicolas says:
March 31, 03h

I’ve used the ms winsock control (via an object tag) in a small (but very useful) HTA application I created once. Anyone know how this would be affected?

20
Abilio says:
March 31, 04h

Why aren´t tables plugins?
Oh they should be…

Tracy says:
March 31, 06h

I have to agree with the few people here that there is definitely an upside to this.

There is too much reliance nowadays on flash for content and site design. Maybe, just maybe, some of these flash-only companies will actually hire web designers that know what CSS and XHTML are instead of just looking for flash programmers.

22
dpiercy says:
March 31, 07h

Thanks Geoff, Mike D. et al for the work around solutions!!!

Lee says:
March 31, 08h

I’m being short-sighted here, but I don’t care, I’m not that fussed about the whole embed problem. We lose flash, no problem for me, I don’t design in it and dislike sites that use it, good riddance. I don’t use activeX controls, goodbye to them too.

The only thing it’ll do to affect me is media playback, and Windows Media could do with being stopped from auto playback, so no real lose.

On the other hand, it is another example of stupid patenting by the US Patent Office. Currently eBay are under threat with their Buy it Now buttons, Amazon hold the patent on one button checkouts, so no one else could implement it, and, as Michael Crichton pointed out in the NY Times recently, it’s illegal to even say “Elevated homocysteine is linked to B-12 deficiency,” because someone has patented that information (even though it’s a fact). Oh, and some companies even have patents on your genes.

Madness I tell thee.

Adam Arp says:
March 31, 08h

This is a great link that shows and describes exactly how this is going to affect sites with embedded content.

http://www.baekdal.com/articles/Technology/microsoft-ie-activex-update/

Myself, I don’t have way out. I’ve got content that displays in a Flash viewer (around 60,000 images to be exact… or general) and this seriously puts a damper on things.

Normally I’m ok with companies sueing MS but this is such utter b*llsh*t. It’s patents like this that demonstrate just how broken the patent system is.

March 31, 08h

Ben Mc:

You’re confusing trademarks with patents. Eolas does not need to proactively sue all infringers if they don’t want to. If they had somehow trademarked the object tag, then they would be forced to defend against all instances of dilution.

Andy Kant says:
March 31, 10h

Overall this is a good thing, the only sites that this would bother me for would only require a couple quick changes since they’re templated. I agree that Flash is extremely overused. Flash is a cancer to the web that is only useful for games, videos, and promotional sites. It shouldn’t be used for menus or anything like that, that can all be replicated with some XHTML/CSS/JS anyways with better usability.

March 31, 18h

Whoa Mike and Bobby,

I’m using sIFR and I get the “Click to activate…” message for each heading. The font displays correctly but I get the message and a box around the Flash content until I click it in IE.

March 31, 18h

Actually Mike, I get the “Click to activate and use this control” message and a box on hover for all of the headings at http://www.mikeindustries.com/blog/ in IE.

Sean says:
April 01, 09h

The conspiracy theorist in me smells bargaining tactics. Microsoft may be saying “web developers, you have two months” but I’m hearing “Eolas, you have two months to back down,” essentially calling their bluff. If it does go down like that, instead of having the cash they were grabbing, Eolas will just have this reputation of “the bad guys who sabotaged the internet for money”.

And beyond this, they’d have to go after other browsers, lest it appear that they’re conspiring to erode IE’s market share.

This’d all make a lot more sense if the news story was dated April 1.

30
Steve says:
April 01, 10h

“Flash is a cancer to the web”…

maybe it’s because you don’t know how to used it well.

There’s alot of great Flash site out there. The problem isn’t Flash, but the people who built the site in Flash!

31
sal says:
April 01, 11h

Yikes! Why all the Flash hate? It’s proven itself over and over to be a dependable alternative and unique platform for rich media content delivery as well as video. I hope it buries Real Player and Windows Media someday…

I agree that there are REALLY BAD Flash web sites out there, but think about how many REALLY BAD html/css web sites still exist out there, that make serious money (Anyone heard of MySpace?). And to boot, throw in the REALLY HORRIBLE so-called “web designers” that give our profession a bad name on a daily basis.

There are benefits to both individually, and rewards to using both together. Todd Dominey’s work is living proof. He’s a perfect example of great design and development in two platforms. So, pick your poison and drink up.

Many of us dislike Microsoft IE for obvious reasons. They have a responsibility to deliver a quality product and because they’re the king of the hill, they’ve shirked that responsibility for years. It’s interesting how a mysterious entity like Eolas finally backed them into a legal corner that they can’t fight their way out of.

Yeah, users are going to be pissed, and us developers are furious, but has anything changed? Will the users really be irritated enough to download a different browser when MS still controls 90% of the browser market? Will this negatively affect Microsoft in any way?

This just makes our jobs as designers and developers continually challenging, and if anything, puts more money in our pockets. But if web developers and designers are really that upset about it, why not organize rallies and take to the streets ala the immigration debate? Now that’d be interesting.

April 01, 12h

“And beyond this, they’d have to go after other browsers, lest it appear that they’re conspiring to erode IE’s market share.”

Read through on some of the links and you’ll see that this is exactly what Eolas is trying to do.

April 01, 15h

I think that there is a place for flash, there are some truly wonderful sites out there (and some truly awful ones!). I wonder how Eolas has managed to win given they did establish that there had been ‘prior art’ related to embedding of plug-ins prior to the Eolas patent being awarded.

April 01, 16h

On the bright side, maybe this will encourage people to stop using flash when it’s a horrible choice (hint: if you’re using flash for a navigation menu, it’s overkill). Flash has many strengths, but it sucks for generating GUI elements, and it sucks for making “web apps”. It’s great for animation, great for video, and great for allowing socket connections and video / audio recording. It’s a convenient cross-platform way to do these things. But it breaks every single browser convention when it’s used to deliver web applications. Right clicking a link should let me open in a new tab / window or bookmark it. I should be able to copy-paste stuff without the author having to explicitly add a bunch of cruft.

Geoff says:
April 02, 09h

Tanny:

There’s a known bug in the IE patch. If you have ‘Disable Script Debugging’ unchecked, you’ll still have to click and activate all the Flash movies/activx controls.

It’s listed as a known issue in this MS KB article, and they say they’ll address it in the future:

http://support.microsoft.com/kb/912945/en-us/

April 02, 22h

Geoff,

Actually I’m only having the problem on my “dirty line” computer at work. At home were I do not have ‘Disable Script Debuggin’ checked, I do not have the problem. I had to check after reading your message because I use Firefox as my main browser.

When I get to work tomorrow I’ll give the settings on my work computer a check.

37
Blah says:
April 03, 03h

What’s the problem?

Developers have it in their heads that they have to support IE?

They risking mental illness and experience deep misery everytime it bites them.

If sites ‘break’ in IE, let them break in IE and the end user will soon work out that they don’t ‘break’ in Firefox. It’s not just flash, ever wanted SVG or MathML in ie. IE holds you back.

This really isn’t developers problem, it’s Microsoft and their users problem, why not allow firefox to gain ground. Refuse to ‘fix’ sites, just tell people to install a happy browser. It’s time developers admitted enough was enough. Don’t put up with it, and let’s just bury IE for all time.

One of, if not the first thing anyone should do when they get a new computer is install Firefox. That’s a mindset that’s only half a degree away from straight forward.

tim says:
April 03, 05h

“Developers have it in their heads that they have to support IE?”

LOL Blah. You show nothing but your own ignorance. Real developers don’t get to decide what their clients use. The client does. You’re clearly not a professional developer.

39
Blah says:
April 03, 06h

I suppose you’re right. I am and I am not. What a tragedy it is that ‘professional developers’ are caught in no mans land with the bombs of the browser wars exploding all around them. Those poor peices of meat, what a life they have been prescribed.

April 03, 06h

You know what, I don’t know what annoys me more. People that overuse flash, or people that complain about how much they hate flash sites. I consider myself both a designer and developer, have been coding Standards based xhtml & css sites for some time now, AND use flash quite a bit as well. And flash will without a doubt will continue to play a strong role on the web. I’ve run across flash sites that have been a sigh of relief if not a pleasure to use as far as usability & interactivity. And I’ve also browsed many a “standards based” sites that have been a nightmare to use. I think as designers and developers, we need to embrace the web as a whole…

As with the change, it’s not the end of the world. Simply update your sites. At least there is an alternative…

41
Steve says:
April 03, 08h

People have to stop simply said : I really hate Flash! Do we really hate HTML because some site are just badly done.

Flash has it’s own place in the web, like someone said.

But it’s also true that, as a webdesigner/webdeveloper, we have to choose the best technology to do a site. So I guess that all start right there.

The thing I like with flash is that it add creativity, and change from the same sort of template that we saw on blog.

April 03, 10h

Hi Geoff,

At work you’re right. Checking the “Disable Script Debugging (Internet Explorer)” option makes the problem go away for sFIR and the Macromedia web site. The only difference I can think of is that at home I’m using the media version of XP, while at work I’m using XP Professional.

Unfortunately I don’t have a choice at work as to which browser is used. They use IE and that is that. Like Mike Davidson at http://www.mikeindustries.com/blog/ I use sFIR for headings. That was the only way I could use the font that the Intranet/Internet Compliance and Standards group said that I had to use on web sites that have dynamically created headings. Otherwise I would have had to use some sort of dynamic image replacement technique that I don’t have the resources to implement because I have to use a specific web server environment. And why write my own graphic text generator when Flash does such a great job? At least I got them to buy off on “mostly” using web standards, which is an improvement.

43
Tim Masson says:
April 03, 10h

Ok - so we have the pro-easy-Flash crew in one corner, the do-it-properly crew in another corner, and many minor factions around the ring with flag waving luddites in the gods. But you’re missing the point.

Ian Muir, Johan, Lee and roberthahn were on the ball - it’s a US Patent office thing. The sooner patent laws around the world are updated the better. In the meantime we have to actually read the T&C’s of all the little bits of code we use and spend a little more time making sure we code our sites carefully.

April 03, 11h

^^ well said.

April 03, 20h

Tim has it right - as a professional developer you cannot dictate to your clients what browser somthing works in. They have every right to demand (and most do) that they work in most browsers.. IE is a major browser.

Like it or not folks, this is a SERIOUS lose - lose. It is posturing?

Probably.

I do believe, though, that Microsoft will go through with the threat.

People from all over the world will remember who forced pain on them - and it will not be Microsoft.

If you ask me, David has the big head in this one while trying to slay Goliath and it will cost developers into the Billions of dollars in lost revenue to “repair” sites.

Thats hard earned money which could be spent on new development and is unrecoverable.

How on earth did Microsoft get the code in the first place?

April 04, 11h

stole it?

April 04, 11h

FF and other browsers aren’t affected by this because they do not actually embed the plug-in technology in the browser, right?

They use external players that are called into the browser when prompted by embedded content. MS/IE actually embeds the plugin in the browser by way of the Active-X object, and that is what violates the patent.

Or at least I remember seeing that somewhere. I may be mistaken though.

April 04, 23h

Dave, I’ll keep my compliment brief before commenting on the issue at hand:

I’m new to web development and mostly use it for my personal blog to the woman I love who lives in another country… and now business sites for my family members and beyond.

The more I do, whether it’s the great resources at Zen Garden, various hacks and solid design advice, good “heads up” like todays’ or, strangely enough, taking a deeper look at the Blogger code I’ve been ultra customizing for two months and realizing YOU wrote the template, I’m beyond impressed and approaching amazed.

Okay, sycophantism over.

This object thing sucks. I only learned how to use the tag embedding .FLV videos a couple weeks ago and it’s great. I’m lucky in that I’m already writing my instructions to users with the I.E. limitations in mind so they get it.

Therefore, I don’t have to go and redo all my work. To all those that used flash, etc. extensively, my heart goes out to you. What a lame brain thing for something so beautiful.

The only recommendation I, a newb, have is to write clear instructions so that your visitors know what’s going on and don’t get PO’d. You guys are all bright enough to rewrite and rework your sites as time permits.

Friends, keep up the inspirational conversation and great designs!

49
MezzoMazzo says:
April 05, 10h

Robert Nyman has a related article here, just down here ↓

flash-interaction-disabled-in-internet-explorer/

Mr K says:
April 06, 13h

People … this is NOT just a Flash thing. That’s an easy work around.

This will also affect DHTML - there is a list of about 50 DHTML on___ tags that will be affected including onCLICK and onBLUR

Oliver says:
April 08, 18h

I have to disagree.

Eolas aren’t opportunistic. They’re exercising their rights over protected IP offered for sale to, rejected, and then misappropriated by Microsoft.

This is Microsoft’s fault, and their response is not demanded by the terms of the settlement but conditioned by their own shoddy attitude to user experience.

There is no comparison between cases like RIM / Blackberry and this.

Delfin says:
April 08, 18h

Good to remind us the Eula. ;-)
Sad, but, to read things like this:
“By the time it’s all said-and-done, Microsoft will probably have spent around, oh, a zillion bucks for an innovation that might have cost little more than several dozen cappuccinos in 1993.”

April 09, 11h

From what I understand, images are not affected because they’re not interactive content. Also, a running embedded windows media plugin will not be affected, just the *user interaction* will be disabled initially, until the user clicks on it.

Also, accessing the object through JavaScript is supposedly possible. So if you would use a plugin that only showed the video without controls, and have the control buttons in HTML using JavaScript to control the video, it would work without specific workarounds like dynamically adding the tag with document.write.

This is bad for the web as a whole, fundamentally BREAKING the <object> tag (at least for interactive content). Although, the way I understand it, if the object tag is used for functionality that is native in the browser (e.g. SVG in Firefox), there should be no problem. Nevertheless, this is a big step backwards. So much for software patents stimulating innovation.

One may think that this is good for Firefox, but really it’s not. There is nothing that prevents Eolas from sueing other browsers except for their goodwill.

The Eolas director did make a statement that he had no problem with their technology being used in free software, but if someone commercially sold their technology that they wanted a cut as well. However, that’s just what the man says now, and when there is big money to be earned (e.g. mozilla.com does have funds, after all), I doubt whether he will be able to resist.

I’d say the only ones who benefit from this is the anti-Software Patents movement. And somehow I doubt they’re happy with that.


~Grauw

April 11, 13h

Okay, it’s about time somehow that IE got its deserved thrashing and maybe the gigantic upheaval this downgraded object thing is causing will do just that.

I’m not saying what the third party did is right or wrong, and what MS is doing about it is right or wrong, I just know that without change we will all still be stuck with IE’s broken DOM, CSS support, and other quirks which drive all us web developer’s nuts sometimes. When money talks, and it talks badly in this way, maybe good change will come of it in the end. I hope so. Though I do sympathize with all the folks like me who now have hours of pages modifications ahead.

56
Mike says:
April 12, 06h

All the “Well it’ll cleanse the world of Flash!” comments are nothing short of naive.

It is not just Flash that is affected.

Do you use embedded PDF files? How about Java applets? A media player of some sort? Maybe you like the aging Shockwave player?

Well, that’s too bad! Because they’re also all affected by this ridiculous update!

Congratulations Eolas, you stuffed up the Internet. I hope you’re happy with yourselves.

April 13, 12h

“11% of Internet users don’t use JavaScript.”

Well that was old numbers, and for those of you that doesn’t bother checking the uptodate ones it is 3%.
http://www.thecounter.com/stats/2006/March/javas.php

Hehe, another commenter above also noticed this one and quickly thought of Ajax… Oh, the irony!