Accessing COM objects

One powerful feature of Windows which can get overlooked is the COM method of accessing other programs. This defines the standard application binary interface so that programs can communicate and use each other almost as you would a library. The interface is language neutral and can be used from Python just as well as any other language.

COM objects use the client-server model. The program being accessed, or library in the above analogy, is the server and the program doing the calling is the client. Most scripts are clients which use various COM servers already installed on the computer (or other computers on the network). To get a reference to the COM server you use the Dispatch method.

For example I can use COM to start Microsoft Word (assuming I have Word installed on the computer) and open a document with the following script

import win32com.client
app = win32com.client.Dispatch("Word.Application")
doc = app.Documents.Open("file.doc")
app.Visible = True

Four lines of code and I have a word processor! The strength of COM is also its weakness, it only defines how the programs talk; it doesn’t define the methods or properties, what is called the application programming interface. That is left up to the server.

So how did I know about the Documents.Open method or the Visible property? In an ideal world the API would be fully documented and available. In reality there is little or no documents or it is not available or it is difficult to make sense of. If the COM server has been registered in a standard way you can use a COM browser to gain information.

A basic browser comes with pywin32. A more powerful browser, oleview, can be downloaded from Microsoft as part of the Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit Tools. If working with Microsoft Office COM objects, my preferred browser is actually the Object Browser that comes with VBA. Just press Alt + F11 from Word and then F2. I find this has the cleanest interface.

The last way of making a start with a COM interface is to simply dump everything that can be found out about the API into a file and use that as a starting point. You can then use this information with the interactive prompt to query the COM object and see what it returns. The program do this is which can be found in the win32client\client directory. I’ll hopefully cover using makepy in another article.


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