November 9, 2010
When Apple released their new MacBook Air last month, the industry was surprised (but not too surprised) to see that they didn’t ship with Adobe Flash Player pre-installed. Macs, along with nearly every other PC, had shipped standard with Flash pre-installed for well over a decade. Apple has been at odds with Adobe (specifically regarding Flash) lately, so while it was a significant move, it wasn’t completely unwarranted.
Once the Airs were out in the wild, a few tech bloggers and reviewers decided to test how performance changed after they installed Flash. The results were pretty shocking: amongst other things, the battery life dropped by as much as 2 hours once Flash was installed and used regularly. Two hours!
The technical details of why or how that happens are beyond the scope of this post. But those details weren’t specific to the MacBook Air. Meaning that theoretically, any Mac would have a better battery life without Flash installed. The only reason that this was suddenly discovered with the MacBook Airs was because Flash is quite a bit easier to install than to efficiently uninstall, so having a laptop that shipped as a clean slate made doing those benchmarks much easier.
About a week after all of that buzz initially hit, John Gruber posted a great article on how to effectively go Flash-free on any Mac. Having experienced somewhat disappointing battery life on my MacBook Pro (barely 3 hours versus the advertised 8), I decided to give it a shot. And lo and behold, after the switch, my battery life shot up by an hour and a half.
There’s been quite a bit of backlash against this general idea of ditching Flash, so I wanted to lay out my personal thoughts about Flash and why I decided to go (mostly) without it.
Flash vs HTML5
Whenever Flash and HTML5 are mentioned in the same sentence, they seem to be seen as mutually exclusive. HTML5 is trying to replacing Flash, and if you’re “against” one, you’re “for” the other. Anytime someone knocks Flash in any way, the response I most often see is a counter-knock against HTML5. While this is about Flash, not HTML5, I’ll briefly touch on that subject.
One of the biggest arguments against HTML5 is that it will be abused by developers just as Flash has been, and since HTML5 is native rather than a plugin, it will be much more difficult to block or suppress than Flash. HTML5 ad blockers will be nearly impossible.
Exactly how that plays out remains to be seen, but I have no doubt that as HTML5 grows in adoption and power, it will spawn a new generation of obnoxious ads, popups and overlays. And yes, it will be more difficult to isolate HTML5 ads than Flash ads.
At its core, though, HTML5 is native. It is an integrated function of the browser, rather than a plugin that’s running on top of the browser. That being the case, logic and experience tell me (and several other, more savvy bloggers) that equivalent HTML5 ads won’t be as much of a bear on the system as their Flash cousins. Again, that remains to be seen, and I could very well be way off.
I mention this as an aside, though. I didn’t deactivate Flash to somehow empower HTML5 and show my undying allegiance to it. I also didn’t deactivate Flash to get rid of ads. In fact, I’ve never even used an ad blocker. Honestly, that side effect didn’t even cross my mind until after I’d removed Flash, and I started seeing “Plug-in Missing” on the sidebars of sites where I would have previously seen a horribly animated woman dancing because she saved 5% on her mortgage.
I deactivated Flash to get rid of Flash.
Flash is not Indispensable
More and more, I’m finding my typical activity on the web to be pretty Flash-agnostic. I don’t play Flash games, and I don’t frequent the kinds of sites that are typically Flash-heavy (movie promos, sports, etc).
The past 2 years on an iPhone and 2 months on an iPad have only clarified how little my typical web experience is dependent on Flash. I could probably use one hand to count the number of times I’d been on iOS and was mildly frustrated that I didn’t have Flash at that moment.
Still, no one can argue that there’s a decent (though shrinking) slice of the web that can only be accessed with Flash. That being the case, and the fact that Flash is so deep-rooted in the web, I had no reason to get rid of it.
Until my browsers started lagging. Sometimes Safari would be cripplingly sluggish, and it would require a full system reboot to get it in working order again. More than once, I was idly browsing the web, I went to a site with some particularly bad Flash that brought OS X in its entirety to its knees. A web browser causing a full system crash? That’s a Windows Me level of ridiculousness.
Yes, there were doubtlessly other factors involved, but I was able to isolate a large portion of the problem to Flash, or more specifically to bad content being served up through Flash.
I don’t hate Flash. Some of the most dynamic, beautiful experiences on the web are made possible because of (and only through) Flash. And yes, there are things that Flash does that you simply can’t do without it.
Those Flash-specific capabilities, though, almost all cater to creating an experience, and my web habits are trending more towards content than experience. I care less about a flashy, complexly animated presentation than I do about the content and what a site is actually trying to say or sell. Most of the time, I want to read what that site has to tell me, and move on. But again, those are just my browsing habits.
And I’m not saying that HTML5 is definitely better than Flash. I am saying that poorly-written Flash has more destructive potential than poorly-written HTML5.
Sure HTML5 sites and modules could end up being much more of a processor hog than we’ve seen. But they aren’t that way today. We can argue about what will or might or could happen with HTML5 all we want, but it won’t change anything.
Deactivating Flash will boost your battery life today. That’s a fact. And despite the argument that seems to be made so often, doing so doesn’t somehow propel us one step closer to a “Meet the new Flash, same as the old Flash” world.
Obviously, going Flash-free isn’t ideal for everyone. In fact, I still think that the majority of people would be better suited to keep Flash installed – especially on desktops. But for my browsing habits, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. My laptop is running as smoothly as ever and I get an additional 90 minutes of lag-free browsing per charge.
I’ll take it.