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A group of Web browser makers has banded together to make software plug-ins as functional in their own browsers as in Microsoft’s dominant Internet Explorer browser.

The Mozilla Foundation, Opera Software ASA and Apple Computer Inc. announced earlier this week that they have developed an extension to a plug-in API that serves as an alternative to IE’s method of using ActiveX for plug-in scripting. ActiveX also has been faulted in recent weeks for opening IE to security attacks.

The three browser makers are working with plug-in makers Macromedia Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Adobe Systems Inc. on the extension. Plug-ins allow other software programs, such as Macromedia Flash or Sun’s Java, to run within a browser and provide multimedia content.

Except for Microsoft Corp., browser makers have relied on the Netscape Plug-In Application Program Interface (API) for handling interaction between browsers and plug-ins. But until the browser makers banded together, they had used different implementations for scriptability with the Netscape Plug-In API.

Scriptability allows for greater interactivity between the browser and a plug-in, such as letting a user manipulate the actions of a plug-in from the browser, said Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation, in Mountain View, Calif. For example, using the new extensions, a Web site could use a Flash movie to let a shopper mix and match colors and styles of a product and have pricing and other information automatically updated in an associated Web page.

“The missing piece was a unified approach by the browser vendors and the plug-in vendors to build something that we all could adopt quickly,” Baker said. “Another missing piece was having Mozilla Foundation as the venue to be involved and lead that effort.”

The Mozilla Foundation was formed last year after America Online Inc. split off the open-source development project from its Netscape division.

The new extension, unveiled Wednesday, provides a unified approach for developing and running scriptable plug-ins across browsers from Mozilla, Opera and Apple, Baker said. Browsers should begin shipping with the extension by the fall, and Mozilla plans to begin including in the next few weeks in its nightly builds for developers.

The updated Netscape Plug-In API is based on Web standards and is being offered in an open-source licensing model, the partners said. Test builds, plug-in SDKs and scripting examples are available here.

Next Page: Macromedia will include the API in future Flash releases.

The effort requires the cooperation of both browser makers and plug-in builders, which will need to support the new extension. No date was set for when software plug-ins would begin supporting the new API.

Macromedia, for example, is committed to including it in future releases of Flash, said Jeff Whatcott, vice president of product management at the San Francisco company. He declined to provide a timeline. The API extension will help developers more easily support a range of Web browsers, he said.

“Now, with these changes, we can have a consistent developer experience across all those technologies,” he said.

Developers still will need to create a different set of plug-in interaction scripts for IE, which uses ActiveX, than for the coalition of rival browsers, Whatcott said.

Baker said Microsoft would be welcome to support the new scriptability extension for IE, though the Redmond, Wash., software maker was not invited to participate. Microsoft officials declined to comment.

Microsoft IE holds a strong grasp on the browser market with a 94 percent share, according to data from analytics vendor But its rivals have made some headway in gaining converts.

A series of security issues dogging IE recently prompted the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team to suggest the use of an alternative browser as one way to avoid potential problems. Mozilla officials said they have already noticed an increase in downloads of its Firefox browser, though Microsoft on Friday released a new patch for IE.

Click here to read about how Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols plans to steer clear of IE.

Last year, Apple entered the browser market when it began shipping Safari with the Mac OS X. That move prompted Microsoft to end future development of IE for the Mac.

Baker said that by working together on new functionality such as the plug-in API extension, IE rivals are making sure that the alternative browser market remains vital.

“Obviously, an alternative browser is critical, and last week has shown us that there are pretty significant vulnerabilities in the dominant browser,” Baker said. “In terms of plug-ins, when people go to get Mozilla or Firefox, we want them to have the best possible experience, and part of that is a richer plug-in API.”

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