Browser plug-ins are on their way out. Apple’s iOS has never supported plug-ins, Flash is long-discontinued for Android, and the new version of IE for Windows 8 doesn’t support most plug-ins. Chrome will soon be blocking traditional NPAPI browser plug-ins.
The web isn’t going in reverse and losing features. There’s a good reason browser plug-ins are going away, and the web will be better once they’re gone. Browser developers are integrating plug-in features into browsers themselves.
Browser plug-ins were very necessary when they were created. At the time, browsers were fairly immature. Worse yet, browser development eventually came to a standstill. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 was released in 2001 around the time Windows XP was originally released. As Microsoft had “won” the browser wars and were on top, they decided to pull their developers off Internet Explorer and stop developing IE entirely. The next version of Internet Explorer, IE 7, was released in 2006, over five years later. IE 7 and even IE 8, released 8 years later in 2009, were a fairly small improvements over IE 6.
For over five years, browser development for most web users had stagnated. This slow browser development created big opportunities for plug-in developers. Adobe’s Flash player expanded to include support for video playback as well as animations and other features. Microsoft developed Silverlight released it in 2007 to provide streaming media and animation support — it was basically Microsoft’s Flash competitor.
Other plug-ins were also created to fill holes in web browsers. The Unity plug-in provides 3D graphics support, the Google Voice and Video plug-in gives Google’s Hangouts and Talk services access to a system’s microphone and webcam, and so on.
Even in the early days before Internet Explorer 6 stagnated so badly, browser plug-ins were used to add features to web browsers that the browsers themselves just didn’t have. If you’ve been around the web long enough, you’ll remember going to a video playback page online and being presented with a choice of using Windows Media Player, QuickTime, or RealPlayer to play the video. These three incompatible plug-ins were all different ways of adding video playback to the web. There was no built-in way for browsers to play videos, nor was there a web-wide standard for video playback. We eventually standardized on Flash, and now we’re moving away from it.
Browser plug-ins have proven to be a problem for the web. Here are some of the biggest problems with them:
Between security and the struggles to make plug-ins work well across different mobile and desktop platforms, it’s no wonder that plug-ins are falling out of favor. They’re also foreign objects to web browsers — they render content differently and can’t be integrated with web pages in the same way standard HTML code can.
In the early days of the web, plug-ins allowed for features to be developed in parallel and compete — witness all the different video playback plug-ins. They also allowed third-parties to add new web page features when web browser development stagnated.
We’re now in a much healthier environment of rapid browser development and web standards. We have competition between a variety of web browsers and even Microsoft is making an attempt to adhere to web standards in a way they never did in the past.
Many of the features plug-ins implemented are now being introduced in the form of built-in browser features. Many of them are already implemented, while some are only still in development. Here’s what’s replacing the most popular plug-ins:
With plug-in features being rolled into browsers themselves, we’ll end up with a more secure, powerful web. Plug-ins are still necessary for the moment, but they’re on their way out. They were very useful at one time, but we’re moving beyond them.
The Flash plug-in will be with us for a while longer as it’s still in such wide use, but all other plug-ins are on the brink of irrelevance. Even Flash is becoming less and less relevant thanks to mobile platforms without Flash support. This is fine by most plug-in developers — Adobe has developed tools that export to HTML5 instead of Flash, Oracle probably wants the extremely insecure Java plug-in to go away and stop sullying their security record, and Microsoft is no longer interested in pushing Silverlight as a Flash competitor.