Visual Basic and
Look in a guidestore and you'll find many thick guides that discuss ActiveX. ActiveX
is Microsoft's new open technology that is supposed to merge the desktop with the
Internet seamlessly. Although that lofty goal is probably thrown around too lightly
today, it's true that ActiveX takes component technology a step forward. Although
Visual Basic programmers have been used to drop-in controls since Visual Basic's
version 1.0, ActiveX controls give programmers on all PC development systems similar
abilities and the controls can communicate with each other and with applications
without regard for the development language being used.
This lesson, being only an hour long, can only expose the tip of the ActiveX iceberg.
Nevertheless, by the time you finish this lesson, you will have a better idea of
what ActiveX is, how Visual Basic supports ActiveX, and how ActiveX takes its predecessors,
OLE and custom controls, to their next step.
The highlights of this hour include
- Why ActiveX controls are important today
- Where ActiveX controls come from
- How to install ActiveX controls in your Toolbox window
- What you need to create ActiveX controls
- How to bring OLE objects into your application
- How to convert a form to an ActiveX document
ActiveX: The Tools
In Hour 12, "Dialog Box Basics," you learned how to add the Common Dialog
Box control to Visual Basic's Toolbox window. In Hour 19, "Toolbars and More
Graphics," you added additional tools to produce a toolbar and an image list.
The tools that you added are examples of ActiveX controls.
New Term: An ActiveX control is a control
you can add to Visual Basic's Toolbox window. If the Toolbox window does not contain
the control you need, you might find an ActiveX control that suits your purpose and
you can add that control to the Toolbox window for use in your application.
All the controls you find in Visual Basic's Project | Components dialog box (shown
in Figure 21.1) are ActiveX controls. Search through the dialog box now to locate
controls that interest you. You may never use all of the controls, but some you'll
use many times (such as the Toolbar control).
21.1. Visual Basic comes with many
As you look through the controls, you'll find a Marquee control that displays
moving text across a form, a Calendar control, a Charting control, a Modem communications
control, and several others, including some Internet controls you'll read about in
this guide's final lesson. By the way, all the Internet controls also work for intranets,
the intracompany networked Internet connections so much in use today. When you add
many of the controls, such as the marquee control, to your Toolbox window, you can
probably figure out which properties to set from the Properties window, but the majority
of the controls support too many esoteric properties, events, and methods for you
to figure all of them out without help. Visual Basic's guides Online reference describes
these additional ActiveX controls so you can get help with a control when you need
help. The Components dialog box is not the only place you'll find ActiveX controls.
If you click the Component dialog box's Browse command button, you can search your
hard disk for other controls. If, for example, you subscribe to the Microsoft Network
online service, your Microsoft Network folder will contain some ActiveX controls
you can use. Many vendors sell ActiveX controls and you can search Microsoft's Web
site for additional information. Many online services and Internet pages offer free
or shareware ActiveX controls that you might want to try as well. Search the Internet
using some of the search engines available for a list of ActiveX sites.
Previous versions of Visual Basic supported these extra controls, but Visual Basic
used to work only within a 16-bit environment. Therefore, the tools the Visual Basic
programmers used were 16-bit tools called VB custom controls. A custom control, therefore,
was a control you added to your Visual Basic Toolbox window to gain additional power.
As the need for tools grew and as other programming platforms, such as Visual
C++, began requiring such extra tools, these other platforms began supporting the
use of VB custom controls. Therefore, if a Visual C++ programmer wants a Text Box
control, the Visual C++ programmer had to locate a Visual Basic Text Box control
file and add the text box to Visual C++'s development environment. (Those C++ programmers
are always playing catch-up to Visual Basic programmers!)
NOTE: The 16-bit VB
custom controls use .VBX for their filename extensions. Visual Basic version
5 can no longer use these 16-bit controls because version 5 supports only 32-bit
New Term: Encapsulation refers to a
package of data and code that works like a small program. A control is encapsulated.
Soon, shortcomings of the VB custom controls began surfacing and their capability
for taking advantage of new technology, such as 32-bit operating environments, became
obvious. Microsoft developed a new control standard called OCX controls. One of the
nice things about VB custom controls was their capability to work between and inside
several programs even if the programs that used them were not Visual Basic programs.
The controls were encapsulated so that the programming language only needed to know
the properties, methods, and events supported by the controls to use the controls.
The OCX controls, called that because of their .OCX filename extensions,
kept all of the 16-bit controls' advantages but also worked inside the 32-bit environment.
New Term: OLE (short for object linking
and embedding) refers to the process of inserting linked and embedded objects in
one application that another application created.
All along the way, the distinction between OLE and these OCX controls became blurred.
An OLE process used a custom control to do its job and the OCX controls further refined
the OLE process so that a programmer could embed a complete application written in
Visual Basic inside a Visual C++ program. In addition, the user could even drag an
Excel worksheet into a Word document, and that worksheet not only became another
data item inside the document, but the worksheet was active; when the user clicked
the worksheet Excel's menus appeared in place of Word's. That Excel worksheet was
nothing more than an advanced OCX control.
ActiveX controls are OCX controls that take these drag-and-drop and drop-into-code
concepts even further. An ActiveX control can appear on a Web page (if the page is
ActiveX enabled and the user's browser is also; most Web browsers are ActiveX enabled
today) for anyone to use. In other words, if a Web page contains an ActiveX control,
even if that control is a complete Visual Basic application turned into an ActiveX
control (no size limitation for controls exists), the users who view the Web page
see the application and interact with it as if they were running it from their own
hard disk. ActiveX controls took the concept of OCX controls to the Internet. Now,
if you want a special tool such as a command button on your Web page, you can just
place an ActiveX command button control on the Web page during the page's development,
and your page's users will be able to click the command button.
NOTE: Microsoft seems
to be making a push for all code to be these kinds of ActiveX controls. Future operating
systems are supposed to be ActiveX based. All programs will, in effect, be ActiveX
controls. Therefore, you can embed any application within any other and borrow technology
instead of reinvent it. Future programming, in theory, will involve building and
combining prewritten ActiveX controls.
Don't throw out your Visual Basic programming language skills just yet, however.
The ActiveX control as a total solution is still theory and is only partially available
and working today in reality. Your Visual Basic skills are not only going to be needed
in the future as ActiveX controls gather steam, but your Visual Basic programming
skills are going to be needed even more as companies retool their applications and
turn applications into such controls.
The VB Custom Control
The Visual Basic 5 Custom Control Edition lets you build your own ActiveX controls.
If you use Visual Basic's Professional or Enterprise Editions, you not only have
Visual Basic, but you also have the ability to create ActiveX controls. Both editions
come with the VB 5 Custom Control Edition. Therefore, if you like command buttons
but you wish they would support a special event or property your application needs,
you can write your own command button control, as an ActiveX control, and then use
that control as if Visual Basic came with it. You can add the control to your own
application's toolbox (through the Project | Components dialog box) and set its properties
from the Properties window.
Do You Use VBs Standard
Here's the really neat thing if you don't use the Professional or Enterprise Edition
but use the Standard Edition: This guide's CD-ROM comes with the complete VB 5 Custom
Control Edition. You'll have exactly the same ActiveX control-building utility that
the other guys have. Professional and Enterprise Edition programmers can enter the
VB 5 Custom Control Edition utility from within their development environment, as
you're about to see. You simply have to exit Visual Basic and start this guide's supplied
VB 5 Custom Control Edition program that you can install right alongside Visual Basic
on your hard disk.
To build an ActiveX control, you must begin by starting the VB 5 Custom Control Edition
by creating a new project and selecting the ActiveX Control icon. The VB 5 Custom
Control Edition screen looks a lot like Visual Basic's screen, as Figure 21.2 shows.
21.2. The VB 5 Custom Control Edition
screen looks like Visual Basic.
The initial name that the VB 5 Custom Control Edition gives to the control you build
is UserControl1; hence the Name property value and the name in
the Project window. Most of the tools, windows, and menu objects are exactly the
same for the ActiveX control and for your regular Visual Basic session.
Custom controls are tedious to create. Not only must you know Visual Basic and
all its language and inner workings (as you do now), but you also need to understand
the way ActiveX controls are built and you must understand the wizards available
with the VB 5 Custom Control Edition that help you build the controls. Although you'll
need to get some fairly heavy training before you learn to build controls with the
VB 5 Custom Control Edition, consider the following points:
- Many ActiveX controls are based on existing controls. Therefore, if you were
going to create a new kind of command button, you'd start with the regular command
button and build on it. You would place a command button in the center of the VB
5 Custom Control Edition's Form window and add functionality to the command button
to turn it into your own control.
- If you are building a complex control that contains several additional controls,
you can place all the foundation controls on the Form window and work with them to
build the complex control.
New Term: Inheritance refers to the
capability of object-oriented languages (such as C++) to base new capabilities on
existing language capabilities or controls.
- Although neither Visual Basic nor the VB 5 Custom Control Edition supports true
inheritance, a wizard is available in the VB 5 Custom Control Edition to let you
select functionality from existing controls and put that functionality into your
new ActiveX control.
- Once you design the control, you must design its interface. The VB 5 Custom Control
Edition comes with wizard technology that helps you add properties, events, and methods
to the control.
- Your new ActiveX control will be capable of mimicing existing controls in all
ways. Therefore, if you later add your new control to an application's Toolbox window,
the Properties window will display that ActiveX control's properties, including support
for drop-down list boxes from which fixed property values are available for selection.
In addition, you will see your ActiveX control's pop-up statement syntax appear inside
the Code window editor when you add methods to the control.
NOTE: This lesson
cannot possibly describe how to build an ActiveX control in an hour's lesson. Actually,
it would take an entire guide to do so. If you want a great reference, check out Teach
Yourself ActiveX Control Programming with Visual Basic 5 in 21 Days (Sams.net Publishing).
You'll get a glimpse of what's involved from this section, but the guide just mentioned
makes you an ActiveX programming superstar.
You can place objects into your application that aren't normally considered to
be ActiveX controls. Although you should stick with true ActiveX controls when possible,
you can use the Toolbox window's OLE control to drop items from several different
applications onto the form window.
For example, suppose you want your user to be able to see a Microsoft Excel worksheet
on your form and interact with the worksheet as if the worksheet were a regular Visual
Basic control. Add the OLE control to your Form window. As soon as you do, the Insert
Object dialog box appears, as shown in Figure 21.3.
21.3. Adding objects from other applications.
NOTE: As you install
Windows applications on your computer, Windows keeps a list, in its Registry, of
OLE candidates. Therefore, the Registry contains an entry that tells the system your
Paint program's data is available as an OLE object. The list of applications you
see in the Insert Object dialog box comes from the Registry's entry.
The Insert Object dialog box gives you the choice of inserting an existing Excel
worksheet object (by clicking Create from File) or creating a new object from scratch
(by clicking the Create from New option). You will only be able to create objects
if you have those applications on your system, but as stated earlier, your Registry
knows what is installed, so only those applications appear in the Insert Object dialog
If you elect to create the new object from scratch, you can choose that option
and double-click the object type (which, in this example, will be an Excel worksheet).
Visual Basic not only loads a blank object into your OLE control on the Form window,
but all your Visual Basic menus change to Excel's, as shown in Figure 21.4.
21.4. You can create an Excel worksheet
in the middle of the Form window.
Once you create the worksheet, click the Form window outside the worksheet area
and you can continue placing the other controls and completing your application.
When you finish, run the application to see the worksheet embedded in the form.
NOTE: Although your
users will not be able to edit the worksheet automatically, if they double-click
the worksheet embedded in the form, an Excel menu will appear across the top of the
form and the users can change and enter new values in the worksheet.
Instead of inserting new objects that you must create at design time, you can
insert existing objects such as an Excel worksheet. When you select the Insert Object's
Create from File option, Visual Basic changes the Insert Object dialog box to the
file browsing dialog box shown in Figure 21.5.
21.5. Selecting a worksheet to insert.
New Term: To link an object means that
your application will contain a pointer to the object. If the object ever changes,
your application's form will reflect those changes. The object is not stored with
your application, but the link to the object is.
New Term: To embed an object means
that your application gets a copy of the object. Therefore, if the original object
changes, that change will not be reflected in your application until you or your
user make the same change to the application's object. The object is stored with
your application so if something happens to the original, there exists no link to
The Link option informs Visual Basic that you want to link the new object and
not embed it. You can select to choose Link or not depending on how current the object
must be with the original object's file.
TIP: Click the Icon
option if you want the object to appear as an icon on your form when the user runs
the application. If you don't click this option, the object (in this case an Excel
worksheet) appears on your Form window as a small worksheet.
When the user runs your application, the user can double-click the worksheet (or
the icon) to add Excel menus to the Form window and to change the worksheet.
New Term: An ActiveX container is an
application, such as Internet Explorer, that can display and activate ActiveX documents.
ActiveX documents are difficult objects to create from scratch. An ActiveX document
must be contained within an ActiveX container application such as Internet Explorer.
If you have Internet Explorer, try this: Start Internet Explorer but don't log on
to the Internet as you might normally do. Open a Word document. If you've never tried
this, you might be surprised at the results. Internet Explorer can display the Word
document, formatted completely, and you can edit the document as if it were shown
inside Word. Figure 21.6 shows such a document embedded inside Internet Explorer.
21.6. Internet Explorer is an ActiveX
You have access to Word's menus inside the ActiveX container. Also, you can right-click
over the text to see Word's pop-up menu; misspelled, foreign, and abbreviated words
are underlined as possible misspellings; and you can highlight and format text by
pressing Word's typical formatting keystrokes (such as Ctrl+B to boldface text).
New Term: When an ActiveX container
activates an ActiveX document, all the document's usual controls and features become
A Word document is an ActiveX document. An ActiveX container, such as Internet
Explorer, can display and let you work within the ActiveX document. ActiveX documents
are going to become more important as the Internet becomes more important. The more
you work within a Web browser, the more likely it will be that you'll want to view
data from another source, such as a Word document. When you're working with an ActiveX
document, you don't have to start Word to read the document.
Visual Basic's Professional and Enterprise Editions include a wizard that converts
your forms to ActiveX documents. Although the wizard cannot convert complete applications
to ActiveX documents, you can convert forms with all their features.
if your form contains OLE controls, even ActiveX-based OLE controls, those controls
do not convert to the ActiveX document.
To run the wizard, called the VB ActiveX Document Migration Wizard, you must add
the wizard to your Add-Ins menu by following these steps:
- 1. Select Add-Ins | Add-In Manager to open Figure 21.7's Add-In Manager
21.7. Adding the wizard to the Add-In
Manager dialog box.
2. Click the entry labeled VB ActiveX Document Migration Wizard and close
the dialog box. The wizard now appears on your Add-Ins menu option when you display
3. Open the application that contains the form you want to convert to an ActiveX
4. Select Add-Ins | ActiveX Document Migration Wizard to start the wizard.
5. After you click Next at the introductory dialog box, select the form you want
to convert to an ActiveX document.
6. Generally, you'll select all the defaults, so click Finish to complete the
7. Close the ending dialog boxes. Run the application to create the migration
ActiveX document file. When you exit the application, Visual Basic displays a dialog
box in which you can enter a name for the ActiveX document. (The default extension
that you should retain is .VBD.) The default directory is VB's directory.
Do you remember the animated form with the happy face moving up the form from
Hour 18, "The Graphic Image Controls"? If so, you'll enjoy seeing it again,
only this time as the ActiveX document in Figure 21.8.
21.8. You can convert any form to an ActiveX
TIP: You might use
Microsoft Office, which is the most popular desktop suite in use today; the Office
Binder application is little more than an ActiveX container. Therefore, Office users
will be able to see your ActiveX documents and work with the controls contained in
those documents even if those users don't use the Internet.
You've now been introduced to a whirlwind tour of ActiveX. This hour summarizes
ActiveX and how ActiveX fits in with Visual Basic programming. ActiveX controls are
becoming more important as Internet-based usage grows because of the strong interaction
ActiveX controls have with ActiveX-enabled Web browsers.
The next hour covers another fairly advanced issue: Visual Basic objects. By learning
how to work with objects through code, you will be able to increase the work your
- Q I don't write programs for the Internet, so why should I worry about ActiveX
A As you have learned in this lesson, not all ActiveX controls are designed for
the Internet. Every control you add to your Visual Basic 5 Toolbox window is an ActiveX
control. You really don't have to worry much that the control is an ActiveX control,
and you don't have to worry about the system technology behind ActiveX controls to
use these controls. The nice thing about ActiveX controls is that they act just like
other controls and have properties, events, and methods you're used to programming.
Q Again, I don't write for the Internet, so why should I worry about ActiveX documents?
A ActiveX documents are becoming more and more important. Some extremely reliable
sources predict that future operating systems will be little more than an Internet
and ActiveX document browser. If so, forms that you create will need to be readable
for that super browser, and the browser will primarily consist of an ActiveX container
application. Therefore, if you want to write applications for future operating environments,
you'll want to be able to convert the forms in those applications to ActiveX documents.
The quiz questions and exercises are provided for your further understanding.
See Appendix C, "Answers," for answers.
- 1. Which came first: OCX controls, ActiveX controls, or VB custom controls?
2. How do you add ActiveX controls to your Toolbox window?
3. Where can you get additional ActiveX controls?
4. True or false: Programmers in other languages, such as Visual C++, can use
ActiveX controls created by the VB 5 Custom Control Edition.
5. If you design an ActiveX control that works and looks somewhat like an existing
control, what can you do to speed the development of the new control?
6. What is the difference between an inserted object and an embedded object?
7. How does the user of an application with an embedded OLE object activate that
object for editing?
8. What is the difference between an ActiveX document and an ActiveX container?
9. What is an example of an ActiveX container that many Visual Basic programmers
10. What must you do to convert a form to an ActiveX document?
- 1. Create a new project and add two OLE controls to the form. Place a
linked Word document in one and place an embedded Word document in another. Run the
application and double-click on each object and manage the objects from within the
application to see the effects. Start Word and modify the object, and then rerun
your application to see the change reflected in one of the objects. (If you don't
use Word, you can use WordPad or another word processor as long as that word processor
appears inside the Inset Object dialog box.)
2. In this lesson's final section you saw Hour 18's animation form converted
to an ActiveX document. Run the VB ActiveX Document Migration Wizard to do the same
and display the created ActiveX document in Internet Explorer (or in Netscape Navigator
3.0 or later).