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The end of Flash could be just weeks away

Written by:
November 17th, 2016
Reinhard Grandl is Director of Product Management at Bitmovin. Reinhard received his Master degree from the Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, specializing on Networked and Embedded Systems, in 2014 and joined Bitmovin in 2013 as part of the player department. Reinhard’s experience includes positions in international research and development companies.

The end of flash

Is your video platform future proof? The web is moving away from Flash, towards a pure HTML5 web experience and this is a big change for online video

In the next few weeks we will see the first major shut out of the Flash plugin as Chrome 55 goes HTML5 by default. The ramifications of these changes for VoD and OTT providers are significant and require some understanding and planning to ensure that front end development road maps are future proofed to account for these major changes to the online video environment.

Google Chrome and Flash

As stated in Googles product blog; Flash and Chrome, 90% of Flash on the web that loads behind the scenes is invisible to users. It provides tracking and analytics functions, mainly for advertising. Although Flash is still supported, these background analytics functions were blocked as of Chrome 53. This speeds up the user’s experience, reduces battery usage and removes a number of security vulnerabilities.

The next step is to move to a “click-to-activate” scenario, where users will need to manually activate the plugin before viewing a Flash based website or Flash content. This will put further pressure on developers to find alternative HTML5 based solutions to a number of challenges that have thus far been handled by Flash.

Chrome 55 is just weeks away, and by blocking Flash by default will see fewer and fewer users choosing to allow flash to run in their browsers.

Mozilla Firefox and Flash

Like Chrome, since August, Firefox has been blocking certain Flash content that is “not essential to the user experience”, or are invisible to users. In a the latest blog post from Mozilla quality engineer, Benjamin Smedberg, lays out a roadmap towards the elimination of the Flash plugin. In recent years Firefox has implemented a number Web APIs that have replaced functionality that was previously only provided by plugins, including audio/video playback, streaming capabilities, 2D and 3D graphics, microphone and camera access to name a few. This has allowed web developers to build more in HTML5 and rely less in third party plugins.

The next step for Firefox will be to require a click-to-activate approval from the user before the browser activates the Flash plugin.  Although Smedberg does say that support for all other NPAPI plugins will be dropped by March 2017, Flash will continue for a little longer, which gives the development community a some more breathing space to prepare for the change.

The benefits are already measurable, with browser crashes and hang ups down by around 10%. Predicted future improvements include better Firefox performance and increased battery life.

Crash rate reduces as Flash usage decreases

Other browsers follow the lead

It’s not just Chrome and Firefox that are moving away from what they call their “last plugin”. Apple recently announced that with MacOS Sierra (which will be shipped later this year), Safari will request permission, if content requires Flash and uses HTML5 content implementations on websites when available, by default. Microsoft is also moving in a similar direction with its Edge browser that automatically pauses some Flash based content.

HTML5 to replace Flash

What does that mean for your online video streaming application?

From a user perspective this initiative will lead to faster loading times, lighter websites and improved security, while at the same time saving your battery.

If you are in the position of a content provider and have already moved to a player, which is based on HTML5 and JS and not on Flash (or other plugins), you are future proof and the named updates will not influence your application. Otherwise, it is definitely time to take action! Once Flash is no longer available (using another plugin is obviously not clever either), choosing an HTML5 based playout solution is almost inevitable.

But switching to an HTML5 based player solution is a smart move for more reasons than just the demise of Flash.  HTML5 based players, which are based on the browsers Media Source Extensions (MSE) and Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) when it comes to DRM, include a lot of advantages you do not want to miss out on.

First and maybe most importantly, HTML5 is an open standard and not vendor dependent. Most likely your web application is already based on HTML5 and JS and therefore embedding and interacting with a HTML5 based player will be straightforward and easy to accomplish.

HTML5 to replace Flash in videoConcerning content protection and DRM, an HTML5 based player can be used without plugins. Furthermore, in use cases, where content is MPEG-CENC Multi-DRM encrypted, the player could automatically choose the DRM that is natively supported on the given platform/browser to enable playback without DRM plugins. The authentication and the license acquisition will be handled by the player through the EME with the metadata that is provided with the content. More information about DRM in general can also be found in one of our recent posts about content protection and how it works.

However, using any HTML5 based player does not necessarily mean all challenges of online video streaming are addressed and solved. Especially dealing with today’s device inhomogeneity and cross browser compatibility is critical for the success of any online video streaming service. There are many different browsers, running on a variety of operating systems and devices. To achieve true cross browser compatibility the player will need to play more than just one type of adaptive streaming format. The two most popular technologies are HLS and MPEG-DASH. By encoding your content to both of those formats you can cover all modern browsers and platforms, so it is very important that your player can handle both as well.

Nevertheless it still makes sense to have a Flash based fallback solution in place – depending on your target audience you might still face browsers which are not capable of HTML5 based adaptive streaming, like older version of IE. To cover those platforms, a fallback solution, like a Flash based player is necessary.

Achieving cross-browser support without Flash

Cross browser compatibility can be achieved in all modern browsers with a good HTML5 Player without the need for Flash. The Bitmovin HTML5 player is a great option, not only to help you through your transition away from Flash, but also to ensure that your platform is future proofed against whatever happens next . The Bitmovin player team is constantly testing and improving our player to ensure that compatibility is comprehensive, not just in playing video, but in DRM protection, ad serving technology, subtitles and multi-language, and every other area that needs to be addressed when delivering a commercial HTML5 player.

Browser DASH HTML5 HLS HTML5 User Approval Required for Flash
Chrome v33+ tick_green_sm2 tick_green_sm2 tick_green_sm2
Firefox v42+ tick_green_sm2 tick_green_sm2 tick_green_sm2
Internet Explorer 11+[1] tick_green_sm2 tick_green_sm2
Microsoft Edge tick_green_sm2 tick_green_sm2
Safari v10+ tick_green_sm2 tick_green_sm2 tick_green_sm2
Opera v15+ tick_green_sm2 tick_green_sm2

1 Supported on Windows 8+

Conclusion

In their next updates, Chrome and Firefox are taking the next step towards getting rid of Flash, aiming for faster loading times, more lightweight websites and better security. As Flash based players have a great history in online video streaming and are still used in today’s applications, content providers and publishers are now forced to move to native HTML5 based player solutions. As well as the previously mentioned disadvantages of Flash, HTML5 based solutions offer additional benefits, like DRM, VR and 360° video streaming as well as a native and straight forward integration into web based applications, using simple HTML and JS.

All the best,
Reinhard & the Bitmovin Team!

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