Chrome Browser To Drop Old Netscape Plug-Ins

Google is to drop old Netscape plug-ins from its Chrome web browser in order to improve stability

Google is seeking to improve the reliability of its Chrome web browser and from January 2014 will stop support for a series of older Netscape-era Web browser plug-ins.

The move to remove Netscape Plug-in API (NPAPI) compatibility from Chrome browsers was unveiled in a 23 September post by Justin Schuh, a Chrome security engineer, on The Chromium Blog.

Netscape Innovator

“The Netscape Plug-in API ushered in an early era of Web innovation by offering the first standard mechanism to extend the browser,” wrote Schuh. “In fact, many modern Web platform features – including video and audio support – first saw mainstream deployment through NPAPI-based plug-ins.”

netscapeSince that time, though, when Netscape Navigator was the browser to beat in the mid- to early 1990s, things have changed quite a bit, wrote Schuh. “Today’s browsers are speedier, safer and more capable than their ancestors. Meanwhile, NPAPI’s ’90s-era architecture has become a leading cause of hangs, crashes, security incidents and code complexity. Because of this, Chrome will be phasing out NPAPI support over the coming year.”

Two reasons that the move is being made now is that NPAPI isn’t used or supported on mobile devices, which includes a hugely growing segment of Web users, and because the Mozilla Foundation is also planning to block NPAPI plug-ins in December 2013, wrote Schuh.

“Based on anonymous Chrome usage data, we estimate that only six NPAPI plug-ins were used by more than 5 percent of users in the last month,” he wrote. “Still, we appreciate that it will take time to transition away from NPAPI, so we will be rolling out this change in stages.”

The first stage will begin in January 2014 when Chrome “will block Web page-instantiated NPAPI plug-ins by default on the Stable channel,” wrote Schuh. “To avoid disruption to users, we will temporarily whitelist the most popular NPAPI plug-ins that are not already blocked for security reasons.”

Included in the temporary whitelist are Silverlight, which was launched by 15 percent of Chrome users last month; Unity, launched by 9.1 percent of users; Google Earth, launched by 9.1 percent of users; Java, launched by 8.9 percent of users; Google Talk, launched by 8.7 percent of users; and Facebook Video, launched by 6 percent of users, according to Schuh.

“In the short term, end users and enterprise administrators will be able to whitelist specific plug-ins,” he wrote, but “eventually, however, NPAPI support will be completely removed from Chrome. We expect this to happen before the end of 2014, but the exact timing will depend on usage and user feedback.”

Chrome’s built-in Flash plug-in and PDF viewer will be unaffected because they don’t use NPAPI, wrote Schuh.

Phase Out

As part of the transition, the Chrome Web Store will also be phasing out NPAPI support beginning immediately, he wrote. “Starting today, no new Apps or Extensions containing NPAPI-based plug-ins will be allowed in the Web Store. Developers will be able to update their existing NPAPI-based apps and extensions until May 2014, when they will be removed from the Web Store home page, search results and category pages. In September 2014, all existing NPAPI-based apps and extensions will be unpublished. Existing installations will continue to work until Chrome fully removes support for NPAPI.”

As the changes are made, wrote Schuh, developers do have several alternatives to NPAPI. “In cases where standard Web technologies are not yet sufficient, developers and administrators can use NaCl, Apps, Native Messaging API and Legacy Browser Support to transition from NPAPI. Moving forward, our goal is to evolve the standards-based Web platform to cover the use cases once served by NPAPI.”

Launched in 2008, Chrome presently holds 40.7 percent of the global Web browser market, compared with 28.6 percent for its closest competitor, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, according to the latest global statistics available from StatCounter. Chrome celebrated its fifth birthday in early September, and by June 2012, it surpassed Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as the world’s most used browser for the first time.

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Originally published on eWeek.