Windows applications that do not export any program interface may be, however,
converted to an automation server. The term "Automation" in this
context means that clients running in separate processes are able to
control converted to server application,
get some services form it in synchronous and/or asynchronous (by receiving event
This is useful particularly in the case of old legacy and the third party
applications. Their functionality and user
interface may be upgraded, and their services become available for another
applications. This may be achieved with COM object(s) injected to the process. The
DLL injection technique in Win32 NT was described by Jeffrey Richter  and has
already become almost conventional. Now we try to move a step further: to
embed a COM object into a target application (now "promoted" to server) and,
using this component, communicate with the application from outside of its
Brief Technique Description
Let's assume for simplicity that our target application is running in just
one thread. This application has one main frame window having one client (view)
window. To automate such an application, the following steps should be taken.
- A special Loader application injects a Plugin DLL into the target process
using a remote thread. This is a worker thread, and its function is
of the Plugin DLL. After
DllMain() returns, the thread will be
- The Plugin DLL contains also callback window procedures to subclass the
frame and view windows of a target application. These window procedures
include message handlers with new functionality for the target application.
DllMain() of the Plugin DLL actually performs the subclassings.
- New window procedure for, say, a frame window has a handler for an
additional Plugin-specific Windows message,
performs the target application window's subclassing, and after that posts the
WM_CREATE_OBJECT message to a frame window. Then
- Upon receiving the
WM_CREATE_OBJECT message, a new frame window procedure
creates a COM object and calls its method for registration with Running Object
Table (ROT). If asynchronous notification to client(s) is required then the
embedded COM object should support the Connection Point mechanism and define
outgoing sink interface in its IDL file. It is preferable to have the outgoing
interface being an
IDispatch-based (or dual) one to allow a
script client to implement it.
- Client applications obtain a proxy of the injected COM object via
ROT, thus gaining control over the target application. To subscribe for the
server's events notification, the clients should implement sink interface and
marshal ("advise") its pointer to an embedded object.
To accomplish automation task information about the target application, the
window class name is required. It may be revealed by using Spy utility,
which is part of the Visual Studio installation. Another useful tool is ROT
Viewer. It is also a Visual Studio utility. ROT viewer allows developer to
inspect the ROT and therefore check the proper registration of a COM
object embedded into the target process.
A well-known Notepad text editor is taken as a target application for
The Loader.exe application is responsible for the injection of the
NotepadPlugin.dll in Notepad.exe. Loader finds a running instance of
Notepad (or starts a new instance in case no running instance is available),
obtains its process handle, and actually performs the injection of
NotepadPlugin.dll using a remote thread (please refer to [1, 2] and code
A NotepadPlugin.dll is to be injected into Notepad.exe. Its
DllMain() method first finds the frame and view windows of Notepad.exe
and then subclasses both of them with appropriate custom windows procedures.
As it was stated above,
DllMain() is running not in the Notepad.exe main
thread, but in an additional thread created remotely by the Loader application.
This additional thread vanishes when NotepadPlugin.dll is completely
loaded. A custom
WM_CREATE_OBJECT Windows message is posted to the frame window
to initiate creation of the COM object for automation and its registration with
ROT. The message
WM_CREATE_OBJECT handler of a new frame window procedure
initializes COM, creates NotepadHandler COM object, and calls its
appropriate method for its ROT registration.
A COM in-process server component, NotepadHandler.dll, implements the
IHandler, specially tailored for our custom Notepad
IHandler has methods to register/unregister the
object with the ROT. The outgoing source dual interface
IHandlerEvents is added to
the NotepadHandler project (in file NotepadHandler.idl).
The interface contains method
HRESULT SentenceCompleted([in] BSTR
bsText). The NotepadHandler component implements the connection
point mechanism (appropriate code may be added by activating of the
Implement Connection Point... item in the right-click menu on
CHandler in ClassView tab of Visual Studio workspace and the
According to my scenario (just for illustration), the server (embedded COM
object) picks all Notepad editor keyboard input symbols (including
non-alphabetic ones). As soon as one of the end-of-the-sentence symbols
(".", "?", and "!" characters) appears, the server
Fire_SentenceCompleted() event, thus providing
all the event's subscribers with the sentence completed (content of appropriate buffer).
Below two variants of clients, for Win32 and .NET platforms are
discussed. Each of them supports two ROT registration approaches: ActiveObject
and moniker registration. Registration details may be seen with the ROT Viewer
The AutomClient.exe application is a sample of an Win32 automation client.
It creates a proxy for the NotepadHandler COM object by using the
component's ROT registration and actually controls the automated instance of
Notepad through the
IHandler interface implemented by NotepadHandler.
The client application process should implement the
interface. It may be done in various ways. I choose to create a special
COM component (in-process server), Notification. To construct it,
the additional project NotepadHandlerNotification was added to
the workspace with the ATL COM AppWizard. Then an ATL object was
inserted into the component, using the right-click menu. This object
implements additional an interface that I called
This interface is not a compulsory one, but may be useful to provide the
component with data from the client application via appropriate methods
(I supply to the component handle of the client application's main
window that way). The
IHandlerEvents interface (by activating the
Implement Interaface... right-click menu item followed by the
corresponding dialog). A client application class
contains advising mechanism. The method
CAutomationClientDlg::OnButtonAutomate() contains code
responsible for advising.
Implemented in the Notification component, the
method of the
interface is called by the server.
The application main window handle (in this case) is supplied to the Notification
component with the
method of the
interface. Having this handle in its possession, the
posts a notification message to the main window of the client application, passing
a pointer to a buffer with data received from the server.
By default the ActiveObject registration is used. To switch to moniker
registration, definition of _MONIKER should be uncommented in file .\Include\DefineMONIKER.h
The AutomClientNET.exe application is a sample of a .NET automation
client. From user perspective it acts similarly to AutomClient.exe
application. AutomClientNET.exe application uses RotHelper
assembly classes to create .NET Interop proxy for the NotepadHandler
COM object. The RotHelper and NotepadHandler Interop (as
NOTEPADHANDLERLib) have to be added to Referances of AutomClientNET
project. This is done using standard VS.NET Add Reference... dialog: RotHelper
through Projects tab, and through NOTEPADHANDLERLib
selecting the NotepadHandler Type Library in COM tab.
By default the ActiveObject registration is used. To switch to moniker
registration, definition of _MONIKER should be uncommented (in the beginning of
file .\AutomationClientNET\NotepadClientForm.cs) before compilation.
Running the Test
An already compiled demo is available for the test sample. Please note that
before you run it, the NotepadHandler.dll and NotepadHandlerNotification.dll
COM components has to be registered with the regsvr32.exe utility.
For the registration, you have to run the file Register Components.bat, located in the demo
directory. Then one or more
copies of AutomationClient.exe and AutomationClientNET.exe may be started.
By pressing the NOTEPAD AUTOMATE button, client internally starts the Loader.exe application. The
latter starts Notepad and automates it. A word [Automated] appears in
caption of Notepad main window.
Alternatively, you may run Notepad manually before the AutomationClient.exe. In this case, Loader automates the already running
instance of Notepad. As soon as Notepad has been automated client subscribes to
its Sentence Completed event.
Now you may type some text in the automated Notepad instance and press the
Copy Text button of the client application. The last text fragment you typed
will appear in the edit box of the client application. To simplify things, only
actually typed characters and symbols are copied, not copied-and-pasted text.
Pressing the Find and Append Menu buttons of the client causes corresponding
If user types some characters followed by a sentence conclusion sign (".",
"?", or "!"), the character sequence will be reproduced in an edit box of all
clients' applications subscribed to the event. The
automated Notepad sends ("fires") the Sentence Completed event to
its subscribers (clients) as soon as any character from the set .?! is
input. Upon this event, the appropriate buffer content is sent to
subscribers and displayed by them.
On exit from Notepad, a "Bye-Bye..." message box is generated
by NotepadPlugin.dll on behalf of Notepad to amuse user .
Compiling the Test
The test sample consists of NotepadAuto workspace for Visual C++ 6.0 and
AutomationClientNET solution for Visual Studio .NET (files NotepadAuto.dsw
and AutomationClientNET.sln are located in main directory of the source).
VC++ 6.0 stuff is completely independent from .NET solution and may be tested
First, file NotepadAuto.dsw should be loaded to VC++ 6.0
Studio and _Build_All_Projects project should be built. Then, if .NET
client is of your interest, file AutomationClientNET.sln has to be loaded
to VS.NET and its projects should be built (be sure that references to
RotHelper and NOTEPADHANDLERLib interop are added to
references of AutomationClientNET project).
The psapi library contains
is required for a system-wide search for particular windows and processes. So,
psapi.dll file is not installed in your system directory then it should be copied from
directory either to system directory, or it should be made loadable in some other way
(e.g., by coping to directories available through environmental path variable,
working directories or with Visual Studio's Tools->Option dialog->Directories). It is
also assumed that Notepad.exe is located in your [Windows]\System32
directory. After the above arrangements have been made, you may build the _Build_All_Projects
project (the rest are its dependants) and run the sample.
The AutomationClient.exe application should be run to test the Win32 sample.
Please note that sample should be tested outside Visual Studio. The AutomationClientNET.exe application should be run to test the
This test may be performed from VS.NET too.
Some Ways for Further Development
|User interface (UI) upgrade
||The frame and view windows of a target application may be
subclassed by an MFC-aware plugin DLL. This allows considerable UI
upgrade, like, for example, adding toolbars to an old-style
||The client may implement a sequence of commands given to the
target application. This sequence could be implemented with some
||An object embedded into the target process may serve as an
"objects factory." With its help, another COM object(s) may be created
within the target process to accomplish various specific tasks. The
object factory component obtains data for new objects' construction
through its methods and/or Registry.
|Part of distributed system
||Automated applications may be included to
distributed systems (see e.g., ).
A technique for automation of Windows applications that do not export program
presented. Usage of COM objects in a DLL injected into a target process allows
developer to automate such applications.
This approach is useful to upgrade functionality and GUI of target applications
(particularly, legacy applications) and expose their services to out-process
clients. Source sample demonstrates such an automation for both Win32 (MFC) and .NET (C#) clients.
 Jeffrey Richter. Advanced Windows. Third edition. Microsoft
 John Peloquin. Remote Library
 Dino Esposito. Add Object Models to Non-COM Apps.
The .NET client is added. ROT registration of injected COM object may be
carried out with ActiveObject or moniker. Text of the article is changed to
reflect changes in code.
My thanks to all people who read this article and expressed their opinion and
suggestions. My special thanks to Alex Furman for his refinement of