A World Without Browser Plugins

Monday, February 01, 2010
...scares the hell out of me. Apple recently announced the iPad and unless you're living under a rock you've heard about it and probably the brouhaha over its refusal to allow Flash. Apparently the iPad won't allow any browser plugins. I am scared to hell.

Web/browser-based applications are the future. We will continue to move further away from the desktop. Soon enough, almost all widespread software will be browser-based. Today that means HTML+Javascript, plus Flash, Silverlight, Java or any other plugin-based approach. If Steve Job's has his way, we won't have any plugins. The Open Web crowd want the same. So just HTML and Javascript. Regardless of how you feel about HTML+Javascript today, everyone has to agree that the rate of innovation here is very very slow. The HTML5 mess including the recent spat about video codecs shows us again that Design by Committee is the worst sort of process.

Now imagine a world where this is the ONLY avenue for new innovations in client-side languages and platforms. If we remove plugins this is all we have left. On the client side, there will be no new languages - just Javascript. There will be no new languages to sprout up like Java or Ruby have done in the past decade. Nope - Javascript is the standard. Nobody will have the motivations (i.e. there will be no money in it) or ability to add a new language to the browser standards. And there will be no way around this via plugins.

Steve Jobs certainly has his master plan and hopes to make large sums of money on the iPad and the continuing dominance of the iPhone. But the Open Web folks seemingly come from a more philosophic/political agenda - "The Web Should be Free". What happens when that comes true. What happens when we've successfully prevented all corporate interests from profiting off client technologies on the internet? Then certainly no companies will invest in the client technologies. We've salted our own fields. We've put our sole hope for new innovation in a committee process thats proven itself time and time again, both in general theory and in specific practice of these groups, to be slow and fraught with problems.


  • robmcm

    There is a real chance that the web will become free but also free of quality content, with the content providers being forced into proprietary technologies, selling though app store in order to generate money. It's a sad thought.

  • ipad = tampod = flop

  • Chris Gross

    @Rob - yes the app store is a scary gatekeeper. I gotta say though - as an app developer its real nice to be able to just upload a product to a global app supermarket like that. Even if Apple's taking a cut. Of course, we all know the zillion draw backs.

    @Anon - :)

  • The web is still free. You could just NOT buy an iPad. Solved.

  • Chris Gross

    I won't buy an iPad but not only because it doesn't include Flash. In case you might have missed it, the post was about the general impact an anti-plugin future could have - not just from Apple but with the Open Web crowd as well. If this anti-plugin crusade by Apple and others is successful, then it has implications beyond just the iPad.

  • Aaron Cohen

    I actually disagree with you. Granted you can only do so much with HTML 5. However I believe the standardizing of technology is only for the UI. The rest of the application could live somewhere else like the cloud or a client-side service. Google has successfully done this on the IPhone (http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/01/google-voice-web-app-circumvents-apples-blockade/). In my experience, plugins are the number one reason why browsers crash. Losing plugins will deliver a stable UI. Also look at this from the accessibility perspective. Every Browser plug-in will deliver a different accessibility experience.

    You may lose the greatest ability to change things when you standardize but you also increase everyone's ability to get involved. Otherwise everyone stands on the side lines waiting for the dust to settle.

  • IBBoard

    I agree with Aaron. The worst part of any website is the point where they decide that a perfectly good HTML implementation must be ruined by requiring me to have Flash/Silverlight/plugin-or-codec-du-jour. Most of the time it is pointless, and the rest of the time it is hugely inconvenient and quite often the slowing factor of a web page.

    Consistency is key to a good UI - plugins destroy that and allow everything to be so different that you can't tell how to use it. Desktop machines are the key to actually owning what you buy - all the hype and drooling over "the cloud" undermines that and leaves you in the situation where you own nothing (even if you paid for and 'bought' it) so that the company holding your information and apps can cut you off at any time (or your ISP, or a bad connection, or your Government, or...)

    Personally, I like the idea of a plugin-less web. It'll be faster, cleaner and more accessible. I won't be buying an iPad, though, as getting that plugin-less web in a flashy form factor isn't worth the lost control over my purchased hardware.

  • Chris Gross

    @Aaron/IPBoard - I understand how both of you feel but both of you guys seem to profess an "i know better than thou" attitude. You're willing to sacrifice plugins for the sake of stability or consistency. That may be perfectly acceptable to you, but what about others? Do people who develop games like popcap.com want to give up Flash? Do people who use Flex for enterprise development due to its productivity in development want to give it up? Certainly not.

    Choice and competition are the keys to innovation. Individual people and organizations should be free to choose what technologies they use and why. If we decide that the ONLY way to add new capabilities to the browsers is through the standards committees, then I truely believe we're in trouble. I just don't believe central control like that ever works.

    The decisions of what to use or not to use should be in the hands of the users. Like one of the earlier commenters said, If I don't like the iPad, I just shouldn't buy it. I would use the same argument to anti-plugin folks. If you visit a website and it uses a plugin, don't visit it anymore. But let those that choose to continue to do so.

  • IBBoard

    That's two Bs in my name, not a P and a B ;)

    It isn't an "I know better than thou" attitude, it's a "I can see some obvious problems that people keep glossing over, and it is only getting worse" attitude. And why should the developers get the decision when it is the end user who has to live with it? As a developer _and_ end-user, I consider what is best for the user to use rather than what technologies I feel like using.

    Google Maps, for example, works well as a HTML and JavaScript app and is accessible with nothing more than a standard browser. Recently, though, I tripped over a site using Silverlight for the map. Being on Linux, that can effectively lock me out of something that could be done in a much more accessible way. Even on Windows I wouldn't be installing yet another plugin. Microsoft even managed to wrap up something that I was expecting to be a nice simple comparison table (based on the link description) within a Silverlight plugin. Seriously, why?

    Similarly, rather than using a UI toolkit (like WinForms, GTK or Qt) and maintaining usability and consistency, people in the .Net world are now looking to use Silverlight for UI "because it is cool" - i.e. "because we can do weird and wonderful things that make sense to us, but will be completely alien to the user". Is that lack of usability because of unfamiliarity (especially when extended) really a way that we want computing to go?

    As for games, I'll concede that they may be one place where plugins are easier for the developer and where consistency can be maintained (i.e. not hacking things to handle varying browser support), but they're also the area that Apple (and others) wants to take the "app store" concept. Given that the plugin is already a potential risk to security, why not just go the step further and download it instead?

    I'm not completely against plugins on the web, I just think that they need to be used in moderation and that we're rapidly getting to the point where people think "I could do this in an accessible way, or I could add 50 bells and whistles in Flash/Silverlight and people will think it is 'cool'" without paying attention to what it is that we really want most of the time: Information exchange.

  • Chris Gross

    Sorry for mispelling your name :)

    We certainly have to agree to disagree. I believe you profess to know whats best for everyone and then want to enforce your choices (no plugins). There are trade-offs with every decision. The individual decision makers need to the ability to make choices based on the trade-offs unique to them.

    You run linux and can't use Silverlight (or I guess the Mono stuff isn't where it needs to be). Perhaps the authors of that site were well versed in .NET. So creating the map in Silverlight only took them one tenth the time it would have to create an HTML/JS map like Google Maps. They made a concious decision that their development time reduction was worth more than the users they'd lose on linux.

    When I reread you're post I'm actually even more concerned. You seem to have a real dislike for people doing things just because they're "cool ... weird... wonderful (to them I guess)...alien" and using a different technology to do it. You'd rather force them into the pigeon hole of conformity.

    As a developer, you're free to choose what technologies you use. Don't use Flash, but don't try to limit my ability to. As a user, you are free to either not visit a Flash website or to use one of the many Flash blockers. But don't limit my ability to.

    I understand where your heart is and I agree with you on many of your points (I like more consistent and usable websites). But we can't take a totalitarian approach just because we think we know better than everyone else. And boiling down all these sites and applications to just "Information exchange" is extremely reductionistic (i think i just made that word up ;)

  • Very well said Chris.
    Flash forever!

  • Adobe shall come with innovation. Apple does things more with their brain dead fans.

  • Is this a good moment to point out the whole "sold 3 million in 80 days" thing?

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