What Is ActiveX?

ActiveX is a software framework from Microsoft (MSFT) that allows applications to share functionality and data with one another through web browsers, regardless of what programming language they're written in. ActiveX add-ons allowed early web browsers to embed multimedia files or deliver software updates to users.

Microsoft introduced ActiveX in 1996. Many ActiveX controls run only on Windows and with Microsoft products such as Internet Explorer, Word and Excel. JavaScript, another cross-language compiler, and other similar platforms are more widely used than ActiveX.

Key Takeaways

  • ActiveX is a platform for developing small programs or plug-ins that give web browsers and Microsoft products increased functionality.
  • Microsoft warns that ActiveX controls can be used to spy on your computer, damage data, or install malicious software.
  • Many browsers do not support ActiveX by default. Edge, Microsoft's new browser, does not offer support for ActiveX controls.

Understanding ActiveX

ActiveX controls are pre-coded software similar to web browser plug-ins. For example, a web page displaying a Flash file might require a user to download a Flash ActiveX control so the file can be played directly in-browser without opening a new application. ActiveX controls extend a browser's functionality, allowing the browser to perform tasks it otherwise could not execute innately. It's particularly useful for playing videos and other multimedia content, skipping the step of opening a separate media player.

ActiveX is still utilized in Internet Explorer 11, but is not supported by Microsoft's latest browser, Edge.  Browsers such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple's Safari and Opera use other types of browser plug-ins, JavaScript or similar cross-platform languages.

ActiveX remains useful to Microsoft users and is included with Windows 10. This is because ActiveX still allows standalone software to receive updates, interface across programs and enhance functionality. For example, ActiveX allows users to create more interactive documents in Word or create fillable forms in Excel.

AxtiveX and Computer Security

Microsoft warns ActiveX controls can sometimes malfunction or give you content you don't want. ActiveX controls can also be used to install spyware, viruses and malware, or damage the data on your computer. For this reason, it is important to only install ActiveX controls from sources you trust.

Partly because of widespread malicious use of ActiveX controls, many browsers either disable ActiveX controls by default or do not support them at all. For example, Google Chrome users must enable ActiveX in Chrome's security settings or download a Chrome extension.

Even Microsoft seems to be turning away from ActiveX. Edge, its new browser that is replacing its Internet Explorer on Windows operating systems, does not support ActiveX.