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Love, Love?

November 1, 1998
by Charlene Marietti
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ActiveX versus CORBA: It’s the technological competition that may ultimately define how we buy, build and use next-generation healthcare applications.

The problem is, the marketing machines behind both standards--namely Microsoft and the Object Management Group (OMG)--are kicking up so much sand that prospective users are hard pressed to make informed decisions about which software-component technology is best for them. Even the combatants admit to excess hype. "This is one area where the technology is actually simpler than the marketing," says Brian Welcker, program manager for Microsoft, Redmond, Wash.

No matter that entire healthcare organizations may rely on componentized applications using either or both ActiveX and CORBA (Common Object Request Broker) in the next five years. Deciding which technology is best is barely more scientific than polling a group of teens about which cola tastes better. The result: bewildered hospital IT staffs.

Any final decisions about component plumbing will come only after the two competing platforms mature in five primary areas: enterprisewide applicability, market penetration, interoperability, customization and installation headaches. And as the famous VHS vs. BETA Max wars of a decade ago proved, the keys to success will hinge on a combination of technical and marketing issues.

Here’s an early scorecard on where the two technologies stand today.

Issue 1: Enterprisewide applicability

ActiveX is grounded in Microsoft’s Component Object Model (COM). Although COM is not accredited by an independent standards organization, it is so widely available--it’s bundled with Windows--ActiveX is fast becoming a de facto standard. ActiveX is central to Microsoft’s goal of achieving plug-and-play among applications and components, a central goal for all componentized applications strategies, including CORBA’s. By allowing IT departments to customize and upgrade applications by simply plugging in a new module, healthcare organizations may speed up the processes for choosing and deploying new capabilities.

In this context, Microsoft gets beat up for being Windows-centric, admits Microsoft’s John Carpenter, worldwide healthcare industry manager. But he claims the company is expanding ActiveX/COM’s horizons. Hewlett-Packard’s HP-UX and Compaq’s Digital UNIX will ship COM in the next versions of the operating systems.

Object Management Group’s CORBA has no such stigma. More than 800 vendors worldwide developed the standard by consensus. An added bonus: CORBA has authenticity as the International Standards Organization (ISO) standard 14750. Mature by IT standards, CORBA first arrived in 1992 and now runs in many multi-operating system environments.

CORBA was born to eliminate language barriers, says Jon Farmer, vice president of research and development for Care Data Systems, a Chicago-based research, development and support organization. (Farmer, a CORBA developer with cross-industry expertise, was an active participant in the recently adopted Person Identification Service (PIDS) specification.)

Because CORBA supports many types of hardware platforms, operating systems, programming languages and network architectures, CORBA is a particularly good fit for heterogeneous enterprises, especially those with legacy data. In fact, CORBA object request brokers (ORB) now run in everything from palmtop organizers to mainframes.

Advantage: CORBA

Issue 2: Market penetration

Microsoft wins hands-down when you count the number of commercial applications that support ActiveX/COM. Because the technology is bundled with Windows you and millions of other computer users may be primed to use ActiveX/COM. That’s good for end users--there’s no added cost to add component capabilities.

Microsoft also points with pride to such initiatives as the Andover Working Group’s first implementation of the Enterprise Communication Framework (ECF), which uses ActiveX/COM. "Adoption by the industry cannot be understated," Microsoft’s Carpenter says. He bristles when the OMG flaunts its large vendor base. "There may be 800 vendors supporting the CORBA platform, but how many are really developing and working in that environment versus how many are building and deploying in COM?" At best, that’s 800 vendors versus "the tens of thousands of vendors focused on COM," Carpenter says.

The OMG’s William Hoffman, president and COO of the Framingham, Mass.-based consortium, finds Microsoft’s claims amusing. "All the vendors in the world don’t make a market," he retorts. "You have to have customers that implement [the technology]. What is the point of bundling COM into an OS and claiming to have 40 million [users] if you are not using it to build distributed systems? The whole world isn’t Windows--and won’t be anytime soon. There are too many investments in COBOL, Basic and other programs that aren’t going to go away. We must find a way to work with them."