For ages, Flash has been the thorn in the side of free-software ideologues around the world. Even in 2010, when GPL-licensed software is available for dealing with almost all kinds of video and audio files, as well as Microsoft's proprietary document formats, there's no alternative to Adobe's proprietary flash plugin for users who want a stable and reliable flash experience. And that's a problem if you're trying to build a desktop operating system comprised entirely of Free software.
That's why the Gnash project, whose goal is to build a fully open-source Flash player as an alternative to Adobe's software, is so important to the success of Ubuntu and desktop Linux in general.
Unfortunately, although Gnash has been around for a while, it has never worked particularly well and still lacks good support for a number of sites. But it's getting better, and the recent 0.8.8 release marks another important milestone.
Testing GnashVersion 0.8.8 of Gnash is too new to be included in Ubuntu 10.04, or even in the development version of 10.10. But it can be installed from a variety of places, most easily from GetGnash.org. Since GetGnash's Ubuntu packages don't seem to include a plugin for Firefox as well as the Gnash player itself, however, we installed it from Debian's repositories.
After getting the new version of Gnash installed, we browsed on over to YouTube and gave it a go. As promised in the Gnash 0.8.8 release notes, the videos on the site worked quite well. The playback experience was pretty much identical to the one offered by Adobe's proprietary plugin, and the only problem we experienced were minor issues when skipping to the middle of a video (skipping worked smoothly, but the playback scrollbar reset to 0 even though the movie did not).
Other popular video-sharing sites fared less well, however. Movies on Vimeo didn't appear at all, and Dailymotion displayed an empty box where the Flash should have been. Content on Hulu appeared tantalizingly close to playing, but crashed and burned before anything actually showed up.
Although Gnash does support many basic Flash-based games, our favorites didn't work well. Desktop Tower Defense hung on loading, while futuristic Tower Defence totally failed. We didn't have the heart to try Farmville, but we doubt it would be much better.
Gnash and the FutureAlthough our experience with Gnash 0.8.8 wasn't optimal, we're not knocking the software. On the contrary, the fact that it now works well with YouTube, even if it still lacks good support for most other popular video-sharing websites, is a major step forward--and not just for Ubuntu users. Everyone currently obliged to use Adobe's inefficient plugin will be better off when an open-source alternative exists, and Gnash 0.8.8, which supports Windows as well as Linux, brings us one step closer to that reality.
At the same time, of course, the long-overdue move to abandon Flash in favor of HTML5 as a platform for embedding video on Web pages renders the Gnash-vs.-Adobe debate somewhat irrelevant. However, while there may come a day when all popular video sites no longer require Flash plugins, Flash is likely to remain prevalent in other niches, such as browser-based games. Gnash's support for such content will therefore be essential.
We look forward to the next release of Gnash, which will hopefully expand compatibility to the point that it's a realistic alternative to Adobe Flash for a majority of users. At the same time, here's hoping that not only Ubuntu and Linux users, but also their counterparts in the Windows world, will grasp the importance of building an alternative to Adobe's offering by supporting Gnash's developers.