Google has announced that it will build support for Adobe Flash directly into an upcoming version of the Chrome browser. In an ideal world, this would end the argument, both passionate and a bit silly, over the future of Flash that has been set off by Apple’s refusal to support Flash in either the iPhone or the iPad.
To understand the significance of this move, it helps to step back a bit and look at how online video works. There are actually three components. At the lowest level is the encoded video itself, which is defined by the codec used to create it. h.264, a component of the MPEG-4 standard, is probably the best known codec; others include Sorenson h.263, Google’s On2, and the open-source Theora. Then there is the container, a wrapper that contains metadata and, in effect, instructions for what to do with the encoded video and audio data. Containers include Apple QuickTime, RealVideo, Windows Media, and Flash. Finally, there is the player, an application or browser plugin that can actually display the video. Some, such as the VLC media player, can handle a large variety of containers; other, such as the Flash player, are specific to a format.
To play video in a browser, at least until the newest generation supporting HTML 5, you needed to have both the correct player plugin and codec installed on the system. For example, much Flash video today is encoded in h.264. The iPhone has the right codec, but lacks the appropriate player for the flash container, so it’s no go.
HTML 5 changes the game by eliminating the player plugin. But it doesn’t really so much eliminate the player as incorporate the functionality into the browser itself. Currently, Firefox will only play Ogg Theora as native HTML 5 video, while Safari only plays h.264. Google has promised support for both formats and now, in effect, Flash as well. Technically, from the description in the Chromium blog, it sounds like Google isn’t really bringing Flash into the HTML 5 standard. But from the point of view of both users and Web site creators, this isn’t really going to make much of a difference. Flash will run natively in the browser. And, Apple’s seeming theological objections to Flash notwithstanding, we really don’t need religious arguments about video formats.
Two likely benefits from this approach are better performance and improved security. The Flash Player was a notable processing power hog, at least until the new Version 10.1, and that’s why Flash is not supported on most mobile devices. The flash Player has also has a number of security issues. Incorporating the code into the browser won’t automatically resolve these, but it will at least eliminate the separate security patch process for the player and subsume it in Google’s automatic update process for Chrome.