ActiveX Filtering for Developers

When we introduced
ActiveX Filtering
with the IE9 Release Candidate, we focused on delivering
a great user experience that stays out of the way from regular browsing and makes
it easy for users to turn off filtering when they want to. At the same time, we
want users to have a great experience viewing Web sites while ActiveX Filtering
is enabled. This includes minimizing site compatibility issues and clearly indicating
when content on a Web page is blocked by ActiveX Filtering.

In this post, we describe some additions to ActiveX Filtering in the final IE9
release and share some best practices that
we encourage Web site developers to follow. Updating Web sites based on these best practices helps maximize
the browsing experience with ActiveX Filtering.

msActiveXFilteringEnabled API

Many Web sites display fallback content when they detect that users don’t have ActiveX
controls installed. Typically, the sites display a message informing users that
they need to install or upgrade an ActiveX control in order to view the content:

An example of fallback content that websites display when they detect that users don't have ActiveX controls installed and ask them to install or upgrade the control.
YouTube displays an upgrade message as fallback content

When ActiveX Filtering blocks a control from running on a Web site, the site displays
the same message to users even though the control is already installed. The site
is unable to determine whether the control is not installed or is simply blocked
by ActiveX Filtering. Users proceed to re-install or upgrade the control but will
eventually see the same message since the control is still blocked.

With the final IE9 release, we added the
msActiveXFilteringEnabled API
which determines whether ActiveX Filtering
is enabled for the current site. The API returns false on a site if the user
decided to turn off filtering for that site, or if ActiveX Filtering is turned off
globally. The upcoming section on best practices includes further suggestions on
how to use this API.

In-Page Filter Icon

Some Web sites don’t display fallback content when ActiveX controls are blocked
by ActiveX Filtering. Instead of displaying a broken object icon in the placeholder
area, IE now displays the same filtering icon as the one used in the address bar:

When ActiveX Filtering is turned off on the site, ActiveX controls display properly as seen by this image.
ActiveX control displays properly when ActiveX Filtering is turned off

When ActiveX Filtering is turned on for the site, users will see the filter icon as a placeholder, as shown by this image.
IE displays the filter icon in the placeholder for the ActiveX control when it is
blocked by ActiveX Filtering

IE displays the same icon in the placeholders of content that is blocked by Tracking
Protection. Displaying this icon makes it clear to users that IE has filtered that
content from the page. It serves as a visual cue for users to click the icon on
the address bar to turn off filtering for that Web site and view the content. Without
this change, users may perceive that the Web page contains broken links and may
not be driven to configure filtering options for that page.

Best Practices for Web site Developers

Here are some best practices that we encourage Web site developers to follow to
ensure that their sites work well with ActiveX Filtering:

Use Native Objects Instead of ActiveX

During product testing, we found
examples of
Web sites
that unnecessarily rely on the Microsoft.XMLHTTP ActiveX control
for AJAX operations. Since ActiveX Filtering blocks instantiation of that control
via script, the sites won’t render properly when ActiveX Filtering is enabled even
though the sites don’t appear to have any ActiveX content.

These sites use the following coding pattern to use the ActiveX version of the XMLHttpRequest
object, which fails when ActiveX Filtering is enabled:

// BAD PATTERN: Don't do this!
var xhr = window.ActiveXObject
    ? new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP")
    : new XMLHttpRequest();

Internet Explorer has
the native XMLHttpRequest object since IE7. The native object
will function correctly even when ActiveX Filtering is enabled. Web sites’ scripts
should prefer the native object if it’s present. The following sample code shows
how to reliably create the XMLHttpRequest


// Best Practice: Use Native XHR, if available
if (window.XMLHttpRequest) {
    // If IE7+, Gecko, WebKit: Use native object
    var xmlHttp = new XMLHttpRequest();
else if (window.ActiveXObject) {
    // ...if not, try the ActiveX control 
    var xmlHttp = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");
else {
    // No XMLHTTPRequest mechanism is available.

With this code sample, sites will only need to instantiate the ActiveX control as
a last resort. Sites can ensure that their functionality does not get unnecessarily
affected by ActiveX Filtering by using native objects when possible.

Many of the Web sites that exhibited this behavior were using an earlier version
of JQuery which used the above bad pattern to instantiate the XMLHttpRequest object.
The latest version,
JQuery 1.5.1
, has addressed this issue so we encourage Web site developers
to update.

Properly Displaying Fallback Content

Earlier we described the potential user confusion around displaying the wrong type
of fallback content when ActiveX Filtering blocks a control. Web sites should use
the new API
to determine whether ActiveX Filtering is enabled on the site to distinguish from
the cases where the ActiveX control hasn’t been installed or the version is out
of date.

If ActiveX Filtering is indeed enabled for the site, our first recommendation is
for developers to not display any fallback content. This allows the filter icon
to be displayed within the placeholder area and has the same user benefit as we
described earlier.

If sites still desire to display some fallback content, they can show a custom message
telling users that they have to turn off filtering to view the content. The following
sample code shows how to use the new API to check for ActiveX Filtering and display
a custom message if a control is blocked:

<object type="application/x-shockwave-flash" data="test.swf">
    <script type="text/javascript">
        // Best Practice: First detect if ActiveX Filtering is enabled
        if (typeof window.external.msActiveXFilteringEnabled != "undefined"
                && window.external.msActiveXFilteringEnabled() == true) {
            document.write("ActiveX Filtering has hidden this content.");
        else {
            // Either the browser isn’t IE, or ActiveX Filtering is not enabled in IE
            document.write("Please install the Flash plug-in to view this content.");

Web sites can use some alternate methods to display the original content on the
page. For example, the ActiveX Filtering
Test Drive demo
displays videos in the HTML5 video format when ActiveX Filtering
is enabled for the site.

We ask developers not to navigate users to a
different Web page
when they detect that ActiveX Filtering is enabled. IE
contains logic that will keep the filter icon displayed on the address bar even
if the new Web page doesn’t contain any ActiveX controls, but users will need to
navigate back to the previous page after they turn off filtering. If the new Web
page is in a different domain, users will end up adding turning off ActiveX Filtering
for the wrong domain.

Test Your Web site with ActiveX Filtering

Some of the site compatibility issues we observed with ActiveX Filtering can be
easily identified and addressed through testing. An example is the
following site
whose layout is affected when ActiveX Filtering is enabled:

Picture of a website with its contents laid out incorrectly when ActiveX Filtering is enabled.

The filter icons appear properly in the placeholders for the blocked ActiveX controls.
It turns out that the site declared one of the controls with default dimensions
that were inconsistent with its actual dimensions. Since IE uses the default dimensions
to display the placeholder object on the page, the incorrectly sized placeholder
results in layout issues with the rest of the page:

When ActiveX Filtering is off, the control loads correctly and the default dimensions aren't used for the webpage's layout.    When ActiveX Filtering is on, the default dimensions for the control are used, resulting in incorrect layout for the rest of the page.
The default dimensions for the control is inconsistent with the actual dimensions.
The layout for the rest of the Web page depended on the actual dimensions.

Developers should test their Web sites for compatibility with ActiveX Filtering
to identify issues like the one described in this post. This ensures that only ActiveX
content on a Web page is blocked by ActiveX Filtering and users can continue to
view the rest of the page properly.

Working Well with ActiveX Filtering

Since we released ActiveX Filtering in the IE9 Release Candidate, the feedback we
received helped us make the proper additions to the feature in order to make it
more usable for both end-users and developers. For example, adding the filter icon
to the placeholder object for an ActiveX control helps indicate to users that ActiveX
Filtering has blocked content on the page, and they can turn off filtering through
the same icon on the address bar.

We encourage Web site developers to follow the best practices shared in this post
to ensure that Web sites work well with ActiveX Filtering. Developers should prefer
natively implemented objects to ActiveX controls when they’re available, and update
their sites to JQuery
which uses the right method to instantiate the native XMLHttpRequest
object. Use the new API to detect whether ActiveX Filtering is enabled on a site
and display more targeted fallback content. Finally, thoroughly test Web site compatibility
with ActiveX Filtering to identify subtle layout issues. In the meantime, we welcome
developers to share their own best practices in comments for this post.

—Herman Ng, Program Manager, Internet Explorer

Comments (6)

  1. John says:

    Thanks for bringing attention to this subject. It's ridiculous how many sites are broken when ActiveX filtering is turned on. I've run across tons of sites that rely on the old IE6 AJAX code. Embedded Youtube videos fall back to the HTML5 player but that seems to be broken in IE9 (I guess it's designed for mobile browsers?). Vimeo will fall back to HTML5 but browser sniffs IE and tells you to install Safari instead. Spoofing the user agent will show the regular HTML5 content fine. It'll probably take forever before these issues become "fixed" across the board.

  2. hAl says:

    " // …if not, try the ActiveX control "

    No don't please. If the window.XMLHttpRequest is not supported refuse to serve the page and redirect the visitor to a browser upgrade page.

  3. Björn says:

    There was a reason why they (devs of maor S libraries) did prefer the ActiveX over the native obect I forgot why though.

  4. Alexander says:

    Am I the only one with <script> contents inside <object> tag not being executed at all in case the loading of the ActiveX object fails ?  I mean, the example "Properly Displaying Fallback Content" does not work on my IE9 … Any suggestions please ?

  5. ieblog says:

    @Alexander: You may be confusing the object (Flash in this case) loading versus Flash itself encountering an error.

    If you take our sample as-is and you have Flash enabled, we’ll never parse or execute the fallback content because we load Flash. Flash, however, spins forever because it can’t find test.swf. But if you edit the type attribute so Flash doesn’t load or you disable Flash, the script executes and you get the ‘Please install Flash’ message.

  6. Alexander says:

    thanks "ieblog", but I perform this test with a custom ActiveX developed by myself, which does indeed not load because of the ActiveX Filter enabled. The plain HTML content placed inside the <object> tag loads, but the script does not get executed. It only works if I put an onerror argument in the <object> tag, then the onerror handler is called.