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Bye-Bye Browser Plug-ins

Bye-Bye Browser Plugins

Some years back, I wrote a blog post regarding the need to install only the necessary Web browser plug-ins. I’m now telling you to probably ditch most of them. The modern Web needs no plug-ins!

Plug-ins are separate programs used to display content within browsers that, in the past, the browsers were unable to display themselves. The earliest Web pages were static, comprised of text and images and maybe an animated GIF, and that was really it. Early HTML, the markup language used to build Web pages, was not designed to natively play video or audio, and why would it be? In the early 1990s, consumer broadband was not yet available, and we were all on 28k or 56k dial-up modems. Even if modern audio and video compression technologies existed 20 years ago, there still was not the infrastructure and bandwidth necessary to deliver that kind of media to our computers. Heck, our computers were considered high-end if they could even play video files on local media, which looked rather more like animated mosaics. Do you remember that San Diego Zoo Presents the Animals disc that came as a pack-in with pretty much every CD-ROM drive at the time? Yeah, that was cutting-edge 23 years ago.

However, as the full potential of the Web was being realized and bandwidth began to increase, it slowly became host to more and more multimedia content. With HTML standards in their infancy and the demand for online media rapidly growing, playback became the responsibility of plug-ins.

Modern HTML standards are now capable of natively displaying most media content without the need for plug-ins, and we're all much better off for it. Plug-ins, while useful in the past, were always hindered by a number of issues:

  • The need for constant updates: for years it seemed like every time I turned on my PC I was badgered to update Flash or Adobe Reader.

  • Security issues: plug-ins are a common vector for malware, particularly out-of-date installations.

  • Heavy system resource usage: plug-ins take up a considerable amount of RAM and processing power which can lead to browser crashes or even system crashes on older, slower machines.

  • Excessive power consumption: plug-ins, particularly multimedia plugins, can drain the power of laptops very quickly.

  • Lack of mobile support: Smartphones and tablets are designed to be extremely power-efficient, low-powered, and streamlined devices. They don’t have anywhere the same multitasking capacity of desktop and laptop computers, and as such do not support plug-ins.

It’s actually the last bullet point regarding mobile device support that has spelled doom for plug-ins. With a growing majority of Internet traffic coming from mobile devices, plug-ins truly have very little place moving forward. Here are the ones that have seen the most use over the years, and the ones I’m only too happy to see go:

  • Adobe Flash
    Flash is used to display video and animated Web pages. In its heyday, Flash was everywhere and used by everyone to create a more vibrant and interactive Web. The beginning of the end came when Steve Jobs criticized Flash for all the above reasons and declared that it would never be allowed to run on the iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. For a while, Android devices tried to differentiate themselves from iOS by their ability to run Flash, but Steve Jobs had spoken and the world, as ever, listened. By the time Android 4 came around, it, too, dropped support for the flagging Flash plug-in. Though Flash is quickly fading, there are some sites, particularly streaming video sites, which still make use of it on PCs and Macs. Thankfully, sites such as YouTube are leading the pack with HTML 5-based video playback, and others are following its example. I expect Flash to disappear entirely by the end of this decade, but in the meantime you’ve got a few choices. You can uninstall Flash entirely and learn to live without it; you can set it to run only on-demand; or you can install the Chrome browser, which has Flash baked directly into the browser, so the only updates you need to worry about are those for Chrome.  

  • Quicktime
    I’m happy to say that Quicktime’s day has come and gone. One of the few Apple programs you’d ever find on a Windows PC throughout the 1990s, Quicktime was favored by sites looking to stream truly highly-quality video and audio, though you were usually given your choice of quality based on your connection speed and computer power. It is now orders of magnitude more obsolete than Flash. Feel free to uninstall and never look back!

  • Java
    Not to be confused with Javascript, the Java plug-in is, within the context of this post, a platform that allows programmers to create interactive software that runs on top of Web sites. Outdated versions of the Java plug-in are, like Flash, a common vector for malware. Java is bloated, slow, and 99.9% obsolete. There are practically no sites that require  the Java plug-in anymore. I haven’t had it installed for over three years on any of my computers, and, in all that time, I haven’t needed it once. Even Oracle, Java’s maker, has decided to discontinue the plug-in.

  • Adobe Reader
    The inclusion of this program is debatable. Adobe Reader still has its place, and, if you leave it on your computer, I won’t blame you. Many businesses and government agencies require that their PDF forms be filled out and submitted via Adobe Reader and only Adobe Reader. If you find yourself in that situation time and again, then, yes, you should definitely hang onto it. If not, get rid of it. Adobe Reader is far from the only program that can read PDF files. Its install size is far out of proportion to its usefulness, and the fact that it is always begging to be updated, like the rest of these programs, makes it a real nuisance.  

    Up-to-date versions of the Firefox and Chrome Web browsers have baked-in PDF readers, and Chrome even lets you fill out the forms right in the browser, no Adobe required. If you don’t want to view PDFs in your browser, you could install a lightweight PDF client—my personal favorite is Sumatra which, in addition to PDFs, also reads ePub and Mobi (eBook) files, XPS, DjVu, and CHM files, as well as CBZ and CBR (comic book) files. Need something with more features? I recommend Foxit Reader.

  • RealPlayer
    I hope it goes without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway because I still see this program on some people's computers: uninstall RealPlayer. Twenty years ago, RealPlayer was the leader in streaming media over dial-up connections. At the time, it was actually rather incredible, even though it came at the cost of extremely compressed and poor quality audio and video. Then came broadband with increasingly higher speeds, and the need for that level of compression went out the window. RealPlayer kept adding features and later adware and sneakware to try to keep themselves afloat, but that only hastened their demise. Click uninstall on RealPlayer right now if you've still got it!

Sadly, there is one media plug-in that you may still require if you stream video from sites like Amazon and Netflix: Silverlight. Microsoft's response to Adobe Flash, Silverlight is used by some streaming video sites because it offers strong copy-protection favored by TV and film studios. This means that video streamed using the Silverlight plug-in is next to impossible to store directly to local storage for offline access. Google's Chrome browser does not appear to require the Silverlight plug-in for Netflix or Amazon, but Firefox, Internet Explorer, and presumably Safari all do. Silverlight does not seem to have a huge impact on your system performance, but again, this is only if you use your browser to watch video from these sites. You should not need it otherwise.

The Web without plug-ins is faster, more secure, and overall more enjoyable. Good riddance!