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Firefox tiptoes toward a world without Adobe Flash

Mozilla's Shumway project aims to run the Web's Flash programs without the Flash plugin. It's now running by default for some video tasks in the cutting-edge version of Firefox.

Flash logo
Flash logo

Through a Firefox project called Shumway, Mozilla on Thursday took an important early step toward building a Web that works without Adobe Systems' Flash Player.

Flash spread widely more than a decade ago so website developers could embrace games, streaming video, animation, graphics and other features that were hard or impossible with a regular browser. Such browser plugins now are on their way out, with Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs banishing them from the iPhone, YouTube moving to the HTML standard, and Microsoft calling them a relic. But there is still plenty of Flash used in the real world, so Mozilla's Shumway is designed to keep Flash-infused websites from breaking even when Firefox doesn't have Flash.

On Thursday, Mozilla programmers enabled Shumway, though only for product tour videos on Amazon, only on Windows and OS X, and only in the cutting-edge Nightly version of Firefox that's not stable enough for regular folks.

"The Firefox Nightly channel now uses Shumway to play Flash videos on Amazon.com," said Mozilla programmer Chris Peterson in a mailing list message. "The Shumway team has been improving compatibility with Flash video players and will whitelist more Flash video sites soon."

Yes, it's only a baby step, but it's an important one in the history of the Web. Flash was ascendant during the years when Microsoft's Internet Explorer was overwhelmingly dominant but Microsoft wasn't interested in improving it. Now as the Web enters its post-Flash era, it's more powerful, better suited to everything from tiny smartphone screens to start TVs, and increasingly adept at running interactive Web apps, not just static Web pages. This latter category is particularly important since so many programmers are concentrating on mobile apps for Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

Plugins expand what Web browsers can do, but they also open up new security holes and crash problems. Despite that, weaning the Web from Flash is a long effort.

Microsoft tried to curtail browser plugins in its IE when running in Windows 8 tablet-friendly Metro mode, but had to relent to cope with Flash pervasiveness, for example. Google is gradually shutting out most plugins, but it's keeping Chrome's built-in version of Flash Player.

Browser makers have begun pushing hard to leave plugins behind by creating Web standards that can be built directly into the browsers themselves. That's a sound approach for new websites, but not everyone is moving to the new approach fast, and there are countless older sites that likely will never be updated.

But the long-term trend is clear: Flash is on its way out. Even though it's still widely used for things like streaming video and advertisements, Flash doesn't work on Android and iOS, and Adobe has shifted its future development work toward Web standards.

Shumway itself uses those very standards. For example, it processes Flash programming instructions with its own JavaScript module. Mozilla plans to improve Shumway to take on more Flash duties, including Flash ads.

One last question: why is the project named Shumway?

According to a tweet by Peterson, it's apparently an obscure reference to an actor: "Flash → Flash Gordon → Gordon Shumway (the actual name of the TV character ALF :)"

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