The State of the Flash-less Safari Browser

Since John Gruber last November wrote about going Flash-free I decided to follow his advice and move the plugin from /Library/Internet Plug-Ins/ and go Flash-free as the default way of browsing the web.

But how is the web experience when you're doing this and what can you do to improve it?

Just Like the iPad?

Maybe you have an iPad and are used to having the missing plug-in message appear from time to time. Or you mainly visit sites that already have prepared for a Flash-free world and skipped the Flash menus & videos and now use HTML5 and h.264.

Well, it turns out that visiting some sites with a Flash-free Safari on the Mac can be a different experience than visiting the same sites with a Flash-free Safari on the iPad. Why, you might wonder? Well, because of the user agent and a site's tendency to check that. This detail will be important later on.

Prove it!

Remember that my testing was conducted during this week. If you're reading this in a distant future and don't have these issues I have, then the sites have probably fixed all this. (All thanks to my rant here, right?)

Let's go to a post on Gizmodo.com that has an embedded video. I.e. this one: Craftsman Hammerhead: Great for Pounding in Tight Spots. It shows this in Safari for Mac:

We are shown a non-clickable image showing the first frame of the video. Basically the image is there to make the page look nicer even though we can't see the video. Well, actually Gizmodo decided that my browser cannot see the video. What happens if I go to the User Agent in Develop menu and choose i.e. Safari iOS 3.2.2 — iPad? Suddenly a nice video is loaded and I can even play it if I want to.

Ok, more examples please!

Another big site is CNN.com and unfortunately the same pattern can be seen here. First a video page in Safari (with the user agent set to Default):

Changing the user agent to Safari iOS 3.2.2 — iPad produces the following page:

Thanks to the magic of the iPad name, it WORKS!

Msnbc.com, abcnews.com and techcrunch.com have the same problem and I bet that a lot of sites are doing some sort of user agent filtering to present different video streams depending on which device is accessing the site.

The Temporary Solution

As John Gruber wrote in his post, having Google Chrome installed on your computer is a way to watch Flash based content. Since Chrome has the Flash Player bundled in the application (you can find the plug-in if you right click on the Chrome icon and choose Show Package Content), you don't have to be concerned to have Adobe software crapping all over your system.

The Much-Needed Actions

Considering that the iPad has only been out for over a year, a lot of companies have adapted their sites to be viewable on the iPad, but they still seem to believe that everybody wants to run Adobe Flash on their desktop computers. Since I uninstalled the Flash Player, my Safari has been crashing way less (almost no crashes at all) and the CPU isn't hovering around 100% load just by surfing to a web page with Flash on it.

Web developers should really stop assuming that everyone accessing a site with a non-mobile device wants a Flash version even though there's a non-Flash version available of a video stream. Even if a user has Flash installed, provide us with a non-Flash version first, since the Flash player is so buggy (at least on the Mac).

by Stefan Laketa