Five no-bull facts about Chrome pulling out plug-ins

The clock is ticking for plug-ins in Chrome based on the NPAPI standard; here's what you need you know about how it will affect enterprise use

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Last year, Google announced it was embarking on a multimonth program to phase out the use of plug-ins based on the NPAPI (Netscape API) standard, a move as radical as Internet Explorer ditching the use of ActiveX controls. A year later, the plan continues unabated, with a total phaseout scheduled for late in 2015.

Google has good reason to ditch NPAPI -- it's buggy, problematic, and a relic of a past that Google has been trying to move Chrome beyond. But there's no question such a movie will have an impact, and here are five of the biggest points to keep in mind.

1. The number of plug-ins affected is small, but significant

Chief among them are Java, Silverlight, Facebook's Unity game-playback plug-in, and two of Google's own creations: Google Earth and Google Talk. There's been less emphasis over time on Java apps in the browser in enterprise settings, but those still delivering critical applications via Java to endpoints running Chrome must look for another solution pronto.

Losing Silverlight isn't a major setback. Microsoft has been deprecating use of the framework for some time now, and its biggest real-world implementation, the Netflix in-browser player, now has an HTML5-powered substitute. Google will likely come up with replacements for its own plug-ins in short order as well.

2. If you're not happy about this, you're not alone

Not everyone is thrilled about the idea of killing off NPAPI -- not even across the course of almost two years. FireBreath, creators of a browser plug-in creation framework, gave the idea the thumbs-down. In FireBreath's eyes, there is no good replacement for what NPAPI has provided, and its rundown of the available replacement technologies found that the suggested replacements were either in their infancy, too manufacturer-centric (such as Google Native Client or Mozilla js-ctypes extensions), or lack direct access to hardware.

If you're upset that Google is going to jerk your chair out from under you, you're far from alone, and some of the criticisms mounted have merit. If Google (and Mozilla) can't offer better short-term solutions for the problems described above, they may have to allow a NPAPI compatibility system to grandfather in the last of those stuck with such plug-ins.

3. Flash isn't going anywhere

If you're expecting the death of NPAPI in the browser to mean the death of Adobe Flash, think again. It's still too important. Flash is easily the most widely used third-party plug-in apart from Oracle's Java, and a great deal of Web infrastructure -- gaming, ads, video playback -- is built on top of it.

But Chrome deals with Flash in a sly way. Rather than include Flash as a third-party add-on via the NPAPI architecture, Chrome has Flash support integrated directly into the program, with updates to Flash provided along with updates to Chrome.

That said, Flash usage is on the decline, with only 12 percent of all websites employing it, down from around 17 percent at this time last year. But it's the growth of HTML5, rather than the imminent death of Flash plug-ins, that will likely drive this.

4. It's still possible to override Google, but not forever

Starting in January 2015, all NPAPI plug-ins will be blocked by default, but Google has left die-hard plug-in users a way to re-enable NPAPI support via the Enterprise Policy system in Chrome.

But don't count on it being around for too long, as Google plans to remove support for the override -- and support for NPAPI once and for all -- as of September 2015. That gives you a little less than a year to get cracking on landing a permanent solution.

5. Now is the time to look into HTML5 and JavaScript

What would constitute a permanent solution? The best and most universal options: HTML5 and JavaScript. The former has finally reached the official Recommendation stage, thus making it a W3C-endorsed standard. The latter has become ubiquitous across both client and server environments. You could scarcely find a better time to migrate away from a dependence proprietary plug-ins.

Google has its own guide about how to make do without NPAPI, although be warned that some of the suggestions involve proprietary products like Google's own Native Client, not only cross-platform HTML5.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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