Sunday, June 6, 2010

Proprietary Software Traps - Adobe Flash

I've been working on a project for work involving the re-use of older (6-8 years old) PCs and laptops using Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, with the goal of distributing them to some of our tech-impoverished Georgia libraries (nothing's firm yet - still in the exploratory phase). These were state library staff members' computers from maybe 2 generations ago and if they are not re-used, they'll be surplused or discarded. As I was installing and configuring Ubuntu, it occurred to me that since we would be redistributing whatever software we install, we are constrained about what we can include when they are sent out. Ubuntu, as-is, is all free software and all included packages can be redistributed freely. However, installing Adobe Flash, Sun (or Oracle) Java, or many proprietary A/V codecs or device drivers, makes it illegal to redistribute.

Once the libraries have the stations, of course, installing proprietary software on a per-station basis is no problem. But since our plan is to distribute these dozen or so computers to libraries with very little tech expertise on staff, we want these stations to be as "plug and play" as they can possibly be. Fortunately, these are Dells and HPs and the open source device drivers are covered. Proprietary Java *usually* isn't necessary for normal web browsing, and it's unlikely that these library staff are going to want these stations to be DVD-capable - it's hard enough to limit library patrons' time on computers without this complication.

The real problem is Adobe Flash, which is what much of the 2.0 web is built on. Even if libraries restrict the use of online video (many do for both content and technical reasons), Flash is necessary to view and use *many* websites, and seems like most corporate web developers assume that Flash is a given. Unfortunately, in the Linux world, it's not a given and it's not because Linux is not capable of running it - it's because it's proprietary software.

So because of the Ubuntu project for libraries, a Flash-free environment was already on my mind when the Flash security vulnerability was announced (and not just because of Apple's hypocrisy on the Flash/iPad issue), and I have begun exploring how I might wean myself off my Flash dependency (mainly for YouTube and Pandora, both which I use heavily). I spent the first part of the weekend trying to live with Gnash with disappointing results. Like many open source alternatives to established proprietary software, Gnash needs a lot of extra work just to get basic functionality (for me anyway), and as committed as I am to free/open source software, I don't want to spend all my time configuring something that probably won't work all that well anyway. I also signed up for YouTube's HTML5 beta testing program, but it doesn't work with Firefox, just Chromium (open source Chrome) and even then, the videos aren't playing. What to do?

Hopefully, the combination of Steve Jobs' criticism and the new security flaw will move web development away from Flash and into more open web standards. Until then, I'll just live in the discomfort of either holding my nose and just using Flash or sticking to my principles and doing without web content I truly enjoy. Wish me luck!

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