In Chrome, Google's Hangouts plugin goes extinct

Moving toward Web standards reduces the inconvenience and security problems of browser plugins. But the new Hangouts software still uses Google's own Native Client plugin.

Chrome lapel pin
Stephen Shankland/CNET

A decade ago, much of the innovation in the browser world took place through plugins like Adobe Systems' Flash Player. Now Google took a notable step in their banishment by phasing out its Hangout videoconferencing plugin for its Chrome browser.

Plugins extend browser abilities -- streaming video and animation in the case of Flash, and videoconferencing in the case of Google Hangouts -- but browser makers have been pushing to use Web standards built directly into the Web instead. That approach makes life easier for Web developers, means people using the Web don't get tripped up by requests to install plugin software, and reduces security vulnerabilities that accompany the plugins.

The early test versions of Chrome, Canary and Dev, don't use the Hangouts plugin, said Google programmer Victoria Kirst in a Google+ post on Friday.

"You'll now be able to launch Hangouts in Chrome without having to download and install a plugin," she said. "Just click to start the Hangout, allow Hangouts to use your camera and microphone, and you'll be good to go!"

One technology Google is using instead of the plugin is WebRTC, which permits Skype-like real-time communication on the Web, Kirst said.

Google and Mozilla are big fans and are working to standardize WebRTC, but Microsoft prefers an alternative called ORTC (Object Real-time Communications). That's a barrier for Google trying to move away from its Hangouts plugin.

It's not easy to move completely away from plugins -- in part because of Google's own approach with extending Chrome. For years, several browsers have accommodated plugins through a technology called NPAPI -- the Netscape Plugin Application Programming Interface. Google, though, is phasing out support for NPAPI and thus for any plugins like Oracle's Java and Unity Technologies' Unity Web Player. But Google is keeping its own newer plugin interface called Pepper (PPAPI).

Chrome uses Pepper for a built-in version of Flash Player, for copy-protection software used in video streaming, and for Google's Native Client, a general-purpose foundation for software.

The new Hangouts app uses Native Client technology, Kirst said. That means that at least for now, other browsers won't be able to use it. Although Firefox supports WebRTC, no browser besides Chrome supports Native Client. The new approach therefore would require retooling with something like asm.js, a Native Client competitor that Mozilla eagerly supports in Firefox.

So, even though Google has taken a big step away from the Hangout plugin, there's a lot of work required to get rid of it in other browsers besides Chrome.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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