The Beginning of the End of The Plug-in

By  |  Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm

When the modern World Wide Web first came to be in the mid 1990s, there was no such thing as a plug-in. The Web was a basic place, and function was more important than flashiness.

Times changed and so did developers’ preferences.

Soon, sites wanted to enhance the web experience beyond what HTML alone could provide, and Java, Flash, and other technologies were brought to the Web. Overall it worked as intended and made the Web more lively, but there were issues.

First off, plug-ins led to a more uneven browsing experience than issues surrounding how different browsers render pages ever did. If you didn’t have the plug-in or couldn’t install it, pages did not appear as intended. Look at devices that don’t support Flash (iOS, I’m talking about you): their users are locked out of a significant portion of the Web.

Moreover, these plug ins opened up our computers to additional security issues. Most security issues on the Web come as a result of the attacker making his or her way into your computer through an exploit found in a plug-in. Think about it: a significant number of major security flaws have been found here.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Microsoft is following Apple’s lead in moving away from Flash, and plug-ins generally. IE10 for Windows 8 will come in two flavors — one for Microsoft’s new Metro interface, and another for the desktop. Metro won’t support plug-ins and will instead support HTML5 as well as possible, says Windows chief Steven Sinofsky.

“Running Metro style IE plug-in free improves battery life as well as security, reliability, and privacy for consumers,” he argues. “Providing compatibility with legacy plug-in technologies would detract from, rather than improve, the consumer experience of browsing in the Metro style UI.”

I have to applaud Microsoft here. Plug-ins, in this day and age, are outdated and unnecessary. Some have criticized Apple’s stance on this, but lets face it: modern Web technologies can provide nearly the same experience.

To me, the most attractive part of this switch is the additional security benefits. I’m hoping that this change spurs developers to wean themselves off of these unnecessary technologies, making the Web safer for all of us. Bad news for Adobe? Maybe, but hey even they are preparing for a life without Flash.

 
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5 Comments For This Post

  1. Stynkfysh Says:

    Hmmm… Google of Firefox extensions are what make those browsers so great. Is Microsoft giving up on extensions completely I wonder?

  2. Jim Says:

    Plugins that enhance the browser itself are fine (like adding a weather widget to the bookmark bar). They want to stop using Plugins that are necessRy simply to view the web page itself (like Flash). Good move by MS.

  3. Marc Says:

    I disagree with some of that. We have always had an uneven browsing experience because not all browsers render mark-up the same, or support the same features – and even if they add the features, not everyone will upgrade. Plugins push the boundaries of what we expect from web sites, because they are owned by one company they can move quickly – and so only now is HTML is to playing catchup. First there was Real Player, then there was Flash, now there is the HTML Video tag.

    Yes they have their downsides, but the web wouldn't be where it is today without them – and who knows where plugins will take us next? Google has some interesting ideas to enable running native code within a browser for example.

  4. arc Says:

    A plugin is different to an extension.

  5. Rob Says:

    @Marc

    I agree. Without plugins, all advances in the Web experience would be special extensions to DHTML and CSS in each browser, with some cross-pollination and plenty of incompatibility. Plugins provide cross-browser compatibility while extending the Web experience.

    Plugins expose more attach vectors and frequently decrease stability, so they aren’t entirely beneficial, but we’d be dealing with a much uglier and less pleasant Web without them. We wouldn’t have YouTube without Flash, for example! (OK, that’s both good and bad. ;-)

    As you wrote, HTML is catching up. The advantage is that popular functionality becomes standard that way. That eventually kills the plugins the new features replace, but there is always room for others in the future. Those that succeed should be codified in HTML or other standards. Those that don’t can be ignored. Progress. Don’t kill it.