Google and Mozilla Begin Browser Plugin Prohibition

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Does your web application depend on Java, Silverlight or another browser plugin? Prepare yourself for some rapid redevelopment; the end is nigh for plugins. More specifically, Google is dropping the Netscape Plugin API (NPAPI) from Chrome in January 2014. Mozilla is slightly less drastic, but automated loading will be disabled from December 2013 — plugins will still work, but users must click to play.

NPAPI was first introduced in Netscape 2.0 back in 1996. Web development was rudimentary at best; web standards were in their infancy, CSS support was non-existent, and JavaScript had only just appeared in the same browser. Even table layouts and spacer GIFs were yet to become good practice. NPAPI enabled vendors to create task-specific code which could be deployed to the browser. Your mouse-over effect could therefore be implemented in a Java applet or Macromedia Flash (before it was acquired by Adobe). Plugins brought multimedia to the web. Even today, if you want consistent cross-browser audio or video, Flash remains a good solution especially if you need to support older browsers.

Plugin Problems

Unfortunately, plugins were also the most frequent cause of browser slowdowns and crashes … or they certainly provide a convenient excuse for vendors. The rise of smartphones and tablets also caused further complications; plugins could be large executables and wouldn’t necessarily adapt well to smaller touch screens. Steve Jobs’ was openly critical of Flash and banned it on iOS. Shortly after, Adobe dropped the Flash Android plugin and began to concentrate on HTML5.

Standards Solutions

HTML5 negates much of the need for browser plugins. Web standards permit native animation, audio, video, 3D, gaming and hardware integration. The platform may not be as stable as relying on a plugin, but it’s improving rapidly and the vendors are (mostly) working together to create homogeneous APIs which work in all browsers.

Dead Plugin … or Just Restin’

Before panic ensues, the Google and Mozilla announcements do not go as far as banning plugins completely.

Chrome has a second plugin API named Pepper (PPAPI) which is not being removed. The Adobe Flash Player uses PPAPI so its future is assured for a while longer. In addition, several NPAPI plugins will be white-listed to avoid disruption. These include:

  • Silverlight
  • Unity
  • Google Earth
  • Java (although it’s currently blocked for security reasons)
  • Google Talk
  • Facebook Video

Apps and extensions containing NPAPI-based plugins are being removed from Google’s Web Store now.

Mozilla’s Click to Play feature has been available in desktop and mobile editions of Firefox for some time. From December 2013, only the most recent version of Flash will launch automatically.

I doubt plugins will become irrelevant for several years. In particular, Flash will remain a ubiquitous technology on desktops for some time. However, if you’re still developing plugin-based applications, it’s time to start investigating the HTML5 alternatives.

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