Sunday, May 29, 2005

Rethinking ActiveX, Removing Spontaneous Alerts

As I was toying around a fairly recently patched Windows 2000 box in a testing lab a couple of months ago, I couldn't help noticing the ActiveX dialog alert boxes that kept popping at me, likely from ad banners served by the sites I was visiting. I almost clicked "Yes" on a couple of ones. And I know better. I've many times argued that ActiveX needs to die. I do however appreciate the need for making the whole process of software installation easier.

Here's the problem: Each time you come back to that site, the ActiveX alert shows-up again. "Well don't go back to that site, you big dummy!" you might tell me. Fair enough, but when the site we're talking about is being served by from within an iframe embedded in a site I actually need to visit, I'm still in trouble, this alert is going to keep showing-up despite my repeatedly clicking "No, i do not want to install this piece of software!".

The fundamental problem, in my opinion lies in the spontaneous alerting mechanism: It needs to go away. It gets in the way of my browsing experience. The original idea for its implementation was to convey a clear message to users that some content might be missing from the page they're looking at because they're missing a software component. I may not care about this site, I may not even be looking at it (if it lives in an iframe), i may just be passing through on my way to somewhere else, yet my browsing is repeatedly interrupted as I'm forced to make a decision about installing a piece of software. Many end-users will notice that clicking "Yes" is the surest way to make "the annoying pop-up go away". This is bad. Most Internet Explorer users still don't grasp the potentially dire consequences of their browsing habits.

Microsoft needs to make the spontaneous pop-up go away. Once and for all. If a web page requires an additional software component to be installed on a user's machine for optimal viewing, then it should be up to the page's author to convey this message inside their web document while presenting the user with a "special link / UI widget" they could make the conscious choice to click to then offer the user the type of warning that's currently being thrown at them for simply visiting the site. The basic requirement I'm trying to define is to never interrupt the user's browsing, and make the process of installing a piece of software an opt-in step, a choice consciously made by the user. If the page's author doesn't do a good job of convincing the user to click on the "special software installation link/UI widget", it'll never get installed.

Until then, I'd love to see an industrious Windows developer come-up with an ActiveX control that downloads Firefox, installs it on the user's hard drive, imports all IE favorites, cookies and other applicable settings, sets Firefox as the default browser on the operating system, quits Internet Explorer, and reopens the web page the user was viewing into Firefox. I don't know for a fact that any of this is possible. But if it is, it would give Microsoft an added incentive to truly nail-down the end-user experience surrounding ActiveX. Until they did, their browser would keep losing market share. Checks and balances.

Update: I've more recently seen Windows XP (still not win2k though) show a pull-down notification drawer, which I think is a most definite improvement. I wonder what the behavior is with iframes? I really still wish the process of installing a piece of software on one's operating system was more the result of an opt-in process, rather than a byproduct of stumbling upon a web site. Note that I mentioned "operating system" vs "browser". Internet Explorer being an integral part of the operating system, ActiveX basically gives you access to the operating system, instead of confining developers to a browser's plug-in API.

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