The browser patent spat between Microsoft Corp. and Eolas Technologies took another twist Friday with an announcement from Redmond that it will change the way Internet Explorer handles embedded content on Web pages.
The start-stop-start-stop decision comes more than two years after Microsoft originally warned that the Eolas court ruling would force certain technical modifications to IE that would significantly disrupt the display of multimedia content on the browser.
In January 2004, Microsoft scrapped those plans and vowed to vigorously appeal the $521 million patent infringement ruling won by Chicago-based Eolas and the University of California.
Late Friday, the company changed course again and notified ActiveX control vendors, OEM partners and content providers of the coming changes, which will be included in all future releases of Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.
A white paper detailing the ActiveX changes has been published on the MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network).
The paper will explain how the IE changes will be implemented and to warn developers that users wont be able to directly interact with Microsoft ActiveX controls loaded by the APPLET, EMBED or OBJECT elements without first activating the user interface with an extra mouse click.
According to Michael Wallent, general manager of Microsofts Windows Client division, the white paper will provide guidance to Web developers on how to load ActiveX controls to make user interfaces active and to describe the impact of the behavior on accessibility tools and applications hosting the WebBrowser Control.
In an interview with Ziff Davis Internet News, Wallent insisted the changes wont be as disruptive as Microsoft first anticipated. In October 2003, the IE modifications effectively meant that users visiting Web pages would be presented with a dialog box before the ActiveX Control is loaded by the browser.
This time around, Wallent described the change as "minor" and explained that the extra mouse click would only be necessary if the user wanted to interact with the ActiveX control.
"The vast majority of sites and users wont be affected," he insisted. "Its significantly less intrusive than what we originally planned to do."
"Instead of non-stop dialog boxes, the page will load normally now and wont be as disruptive. It will only require a click to activate [the control] if the user wants to interact with it," Wallent added.
The latest about-face is sure to raise eyebrows in legal circles, coming just two months after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected an attempt by Microsoft to have the patent invalidated.
It suggests Microsoft may opt to scrap the appeal and work around the patents owned by Eolas—but Wallent dismissed that idea.
"The appeal is ongoing and we expect a retrial to begin sometime in 2006. Given that we found this design [around the patent] that we think is of limited impact, we decided to put the change out there and remove any uncertainties," Wallant said.
Jason Schultz, a patent attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights think tank, said that, "If enforced, it [the patent] could make Microsoft change IE somewhat. Although now that the patent has been re-examined, it may not be as much as before.
"I think Microsoft already announced they had a work-around in place in case the injunction hit. It would also likely only be for new versions of IE, not existing ones," Schultz added.
In addition to new copies of Windows sold through OEMs and box product channels, Microsofts Wallent said the new IE behavior would be added to cumulative security updates for distribution to existing Windows customers.
Ben Charny contributed to this article