What Is ActiveX?

ActiveX is software that allows applications to share information with one another online 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.

ActiveX was Developed by Microsoft, Inc. in 1996, ActiveX is only supported on Windows and with Microsoft products like Internet Explorer or Edge, Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. Today, Javascript, another cross-language compiler and other similar platforms are much more widely used than ActiveX.

Key Takeaways

  • ActiveX is a platform for developing small programs or plug-ins that work with Microsoft products to enhance web browsing and other online activities.
  • Its use has diminished since a malicious ActiveX control could completely take over your computer or device, stealing or removing sensitive data, or installing malware without your knowledge.
  • Today, ActiveX is not found frequently in web browsers, but is instead utilized by standalone Microsoft applications such as Office to help them communicate and interface more seamlessly with one another.

Understanding ActiveX

ActiveX is used to create pieces of pre-coded software called ActiveX controls (similar to plug-ins or add-ins on web browsers). If, for example, you are trying to access a web page that has plays Flash files, you can download a Flash ActiveX control in order to play the files directly in your browser without opening a new application. Basically, the controls extend a browser's functionality, allowing it to perform tasks it would otherwise not be capable of doing natively. 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 MS Internet Explorer 11, but has been removed from Microsoft's latest browser, Edge. Other non-Microsoft browsers, such as Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera, all use other types of browser plug-ins or use Javascript or similar cross-platform languages.

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

AxtiveX and Computer Security

ActiveX has complete access to your Windows operating system so, while it can be more powerful than Javascript, ActiveX controls can also be used maliciously (e.g. by computer viruses, malware, and spyware). For this reason, it is important to only install ActiveX controls from sources you trust.

Partly because malicious use of ActiveX controls became such a widespread problem, ActiveX controls are far less common today. Many browsers either disable ActiveX controls by default or do not support them at all. Google Chrome, for example, won't do so automatically, though support can be added via a browser extension. Interestingly, even Microsoft itself seems to be dialing back on its software: its new Edge, the browser that is replacing its Internet Explorer on Windows operating systems, does not support ActiveX.