Flashy Chrome

April 3, 2010

One of the criticisms that has been made of Apple’s new iPad is that its browser does not support the popular Adobe (originally Macromedia) Flash format for video and other rich content.   Some developers dislike Flash because they find it clunky.  Apple has made some statements about wanting to support open standards and HTML 5; given that Apple is the most closed technology company around — they even outdo Microsoft these days — I think these statements should be taken with several large shovelfuls of salt.

Now, as reported in an article at Technology Review, Google has announced that it will bundling the Flash player plugin with its Chrome Web browser, as well as including Flash player updates into the automatic update system for Chrome.   Google and Adobe have also apparently agreed to work together on improving integration between Flash and the browser.

Google now plans to bundle Flash with Chrome downloads, and to make it part of Chrome’s automatic update system. This means users should always run the most recent, stable, and secure version. In the future, Google and Adobe plan to work on deeper integrated features, such as finding a way for Chrome’s unique security system to work in conjunction with Flash.

Flash is perhaps the most popular browser plugin, and is very widely installed, not only with Chrome, but also with Firefox, Opera, and even Internet Explorer.  As things stand now, though, the user has to download the plugin and install it, and has to remember to check regularly for security and other updates.  Not surprisingly, many users are not as diligent as they might be, and end up running quite elderly versions of Flash.  This is excellent news from the point of malicious software distributors, because Flash is so widely installed.   Putting Flash updates into the browser’s update mechanism is a real positive: there’s one less set of security updates to check on and install.

The article also mentions another cooperative effort that might have even bigger benefits in the slightly longer term.

Google, Adobe, and another browser maker, Mozilla, have revealed plans to improve the way plug-ins interface with browsers. This could lead to better performance, security, and user experience for Flash and other plug-ins, say those involved.

The plugin interface currently used by these browsers originated with Netscape Navigator in the mid-1990s, and is increasingly showing its age.   It makes some browser security techniques, like the sandboxing used by Chrome, difficult; it also makes integrating new browser features and plugins subject to ad hoc hacks.

While I am a big fan of open standards, and do hope that the HTML 5 multi-media capabilities eventually become the order of the day, that will not happen overnight.  There is a lot of Flash content out there, and a lot of accumulated knowledge in its developers.  (It is also worth noting that the Flash specification, although it is owned by Adobe, is published.)   This development seems like a sensible evolutionary way forward.

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