Flash in the pan

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 13, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I've known for several years that development of Adobe's Flash player for Linux has ended except for service updates. In the last couple of months, though, maintaining it on my Debian system has become a series of rear guard actions. Each time I update my system with the last minor release, all is well -- then after a couple of weeks, Iceweasel (Debian's unbranded version of Firefox) fills every web page is full of notices that Flash needs to be updated again. The trouble is, I've installed the latest update in the repository, and I can't update.

I suppose that Mozilla means well. Updates can help to make a system secure, and by most estimates Linux accounts for only a percent or two or users. Still, would it kill Mozilla to add a line or two making an exception for Linux? To be constantly told to update and be unable to is -- no question -- a tantalizing form of daily cruelty.

Even more to the point, it's not exactly a way to win or retain users. I doubt, too, if advertisers would appreciate knowing that Mozilla is making their ads invisible to some viewers.

Oh, I know there are workarounds. I can go to Iceweasel's about:config page, and set plugins.update.notifyUser to false, but there are always sites willing to take up where Mozilla left off and notify me that I have an outdated version on their own account. A few even decline to let me view their precious contents.

I could also install Gnash, the GNU Project's attempt to provide a free version of Flash. But the latest version of Gnash in the Debian repositories doesn't work on most of the videos on Youtube, which is a bad omen. More importantly, in my experience using Gnash means exchanging the problem with Flash for a similar one; in the past, Gnash has frequently worked one day and failed the next day.

Alternatively, I can switch back to Chromium, which does contain a current version of Flash -- or, at least, one current enough that most sites will condescend to let me read them. I prefer Iceweasel / Firefox, but in this case, my preference in applications may yet take second place to my dislike of being nagged about something I can do nothing about.

Yet, strangely, I may not do anything. In fact, I seem to coming around to the conclusion that the nagging may actually be something to appreciate.

I mean, let's be honest: most of the Flash content on the web is extraneous. Much of it is ads, and a good deal more of it is cute content of kittens, episodes of TV that I didn't bother with when they were first aired, or news clips that take longer to load than I take to read their transcriptions. It's been over a decade since Flash was considered something to marvel at in its own right.

Thanks to the need to add an exception (and, for security reasons, I prefer a temporary exception to a permanent one), I find myself thinking twice about whether I really want to bother with such material. I don't mind fluff, at least in some moods or maybe as a reward for a day's work, but there's no doubt that it is a distraction at other times.

Having to think twice reminds me that it is a distraction. More often than not, I decide I can live without this kind of content, and return to what I was doing. I have no way of measuring, but I suspect that I waste less time and have become more productive -- and all because of the annoyance of the security notices.

The simple solution
Once, I used to wish that Gnash would become consistently useable. Over the last decade, I've constantly advised clients not to over-use Flash. More recently, I've been hoping that the adoption of HTML5 would speed up, so that Flash would become obsolete, replaced by an open standard.

Now, however, I am telling myself that I should have followed more of a free software philosophy, and avoided the proprietary Flash, no matter how convenient it seemed at the time. But I was curious about what people were talking about, and afraid of missing out. So I created an exception for my conscience, and rationalized it with feeble excuses.

It's not like I didn't know the score -- after all, Debian's package for fetching the latest version is flashplugin-nonfree, which always tipped me off.

Under these circumstances, poetic justice seems to have been done in the fact that it took reduced access to Flash to make me appreciate that I can usually live perfectly well without it. So maybe my solution is to uninstall Flash altogether.

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