To plug in, or not to plug in: that is the question! 

May 17th, 2012 by Elliott Mitchell

In recent years, we have seen a tremendous amount of attention to what can only be described as a debate between browser based plugins and their more standards based equivalent technologies, HTML & Javascript. Granted, even plugin providers can argue that they have open standards, but HTML definitely has its roots originating by a standards processes like W3C which is widely accepted by the web community. While we don’t want to go down the route of arguing for either side, it’s quite interesting to consider some of the available information freely circulating on the web.

Let’s start off first by examining some of the requirements of a plugin based deployment. If a webpage requires a plugin, often the end user will be prompted to install or update before they can proceed. This prompt is often met with resistance by users who either don’t know what the plugins are, have a slow Internet connection or receive security warnings about installing the plugin. While there are steps to install browser based plugins and these may present difficulties for some, most online statistics show that this hasn’t really affected adoption rates.

To address this, I thought it would be helpful to take a peek at the current trajectory of plugin usage, plugin alternatives like HTML5, and browser usage as to better inform developers to decide whether or not to create plugin dependent content for the web browser. Let’s first take a look at desktop web browser plugin usage between September 2008 and January 2012 as measured by statowl.com:

Flash – 95.74%
Java Support 75.63%
SilverLight Support 67.37%
Quicktime Support 53.99%
Window Media Player Support 53.12%

Unity – ?% (numbers not available, estimated at 120 million installs as of May 2012)

Flash has been holding strong and is steadily installed on a more than 95% of all desktop computers. Flash is fortunate that two years after it’s launch, deals were made with all the major browsers to ship with Flash pre-installed. Pre-installs, YouTube, Facebook and 15 years on the market have made Flash the giant it is. Flash updates require user permission and a browser reboot.

Java Support updates for browsers have been holding steady for the past four years between 75% and 80%. Some of these updates can be hundreds of megabytes to download as system updates. At least on Windows systems, Java Support updates sometime require a system reboot. Apple has depreciated Java as of the release of OSX 10.6 Update 3 and is hinting of not supporting it in the future, at which time Java would rely on manual installation.

Interestingly enough, Microsoft Silverlight’s plugin install base has been steadily rising over the past four years from under 20% to almost 70% of browsers. Silverlight requires a browser reboot as well.

Both Windows Media support and Apple’s Quicktime support have seen installs drop steadily over the past four years, down from between 70% – 75% to a little more than 50%. It is worth pointing out that both these plugins are limited in their functionality when compared to the previously discussed plugins and Unity, mentioned below. Quicktime updates for OSX are handled through system updates. Windows Media Player updates are handled by Windows Systems updates. Both Windows and OSX require rebooting after updates.

Unity web player plugin has been on the rise over the past four years, although numbers are difficult to come by. The unofficial word from Unity is it has approximately 120 million installs. This is impressive due to Unity emerging from relative obscurity four years ago. Unity provides advanced capabilities and rich experiences. Unity MMO’s, like Battlestar Galactica, have over 10 million users. Social game portals like Facebook, Brass Monkey and Kongregate are seeing a rise in Unity content. Unity now targets the Flash player to leverage Flash’s install base. *The Unity plugin doesn’t require rebooting anything (See below).

So what about rich content on the desktop browser without a plugin? There are currently two options for that. The first option is HTML5 on supported browsers. HTML5 is very promising and open source but not every browser fully supports it. HTML5 runs best on Marathon & Chrome at the moment. Take a peek at html5test.com to see how desktop browsers score on supporting HTLM5 features.

The second option for a plugin free rich media content experience in the browser is Unity running natively in Chrome. That’s a great move for Chrome and Unity. How pervasive is Chrome? Check out these desktop browser statistics from around the world ranging between May 2011 to April 2012 according to StatCounter:

IE 34.07% – Steadily Decreasing
Chrome 31.23% – Steadily Increasing
Firefox 24.8% – Slightly Decreasing
Safari 7.3% – Very Slightly increasing
Opera 1.7% – Holding steady

Chrome installs are on the rise and IE is falling. At this time, Chrome’s rapid adoption rates are great for both Unity and HTML5. A big question is when will Unity run natively in IE, Firefox and/or Safari?

We’ve now covered the adoption statistics of many popular browser based plugins and the support for HTML5 provided by the top browsers. There may not really be a debate at all. It appears that there are plenty of uses for each technology at this point. It is my opinion that if the web content is spectacularly engaging, innovative and has inherent viral social marketing hooks integrated, you can proceed on either side of the divide.

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