March 18, 2008

Gnash Flash player reaches milestone, not destination

Author: Bruce Byfield

Gnash, the free software Flash player, has released its first beta. The new release is a milestone for both the project and the GNU/Linux desktop, which remains dependent on the proprietary Adobe player for handling Flash files (.swf). Although Flash support is not complete in version 0.8.2, Gnash has now reached the point where it is usable for the most common everyday purposes, such as watching videos on YouTube -- a point that Gnash was exaggeratedly reported as having reached last June. However, in many other ordinary circumstances, Gnash's success remains hit or miss.

Gnash arose out of the Gameswf project in the last months of 2005. It soon attracted widespread attention in the free software community, becoming a high priority project of the Free Software Foundation, an indication that it was filling one of the main gaps in free desktop functionality.

Version 0.8.2 is available from the Get Gnash site as source code, or as a package for Debian, Fedora, Ubuntu, FreeBSD, NetBSD, and Windows. It is also quickly finding its way into the repositories of major distributions, including Debian Unstable and Ubuntu 8.0.4.

Gnash comprises the Gnash desktop player, the Gnash plugin for Firefox (which also works with Epiphany and other Mozilla-based browsers), and Klash, a plugin for Konqueror. The two plugins work seamlessly, and using the desktop player is generally as simple as entering the command gnash followed by a file path, or gnash -u followed by an URL. However, if you choose, you can run Gnash with parameters to scale the video, to set a video's exact height and width, or to loop a video continuously. Gnash also comes with a trio of commands for debugging: the general verbose switch (-v)) and switches for how the play handles Flash actions (-va) or parses files (-vp).

Testing the beta

The user manual for the beta describes it as focused mainly on support for Flash 7, "with better SWF v8 and v9 support than earlier versions." About 80% of ActionScript 2.0 classes are implemented, including "all of the most heavily used ones," and a start has been made on support for ActionScript 3. In addition, "Gnash supports the majority of Flash opcodes up to SWF v9, and a wide sampling of ActionScript classes for SWF v8."

Even if you are not familiar with Flash scripting, clearly Gnash does not yet offer the same level of functionality as the latest version of Adobe's Flash player. But what, exactly, do the limitations mean for those users who would prefer to use Gnash so that they can run a philosophically free desktop?

To find out, I installed the Gnash plugin and Klash, and tried to access a number of commonly used sites. A dozen or so videos from each of YouTube and Lulu.tv all ran without problems. Both these sites receive heavy traffic and have an interest in making their content as accessible as possible to the largest audience. For some people, that may be enough.

However, if you are more adventurous in your viewing of Flash files, your results will probably be more mixed. On Best Flash Sites, one in three files I tried failing to play. Since Flash developers often want to take advantage of the latest features, this failure rate is perhaps to be expected, and it is not a particular deterrent against using Gnash for most users.

Unfortunately, on sites for Web designers and other artists, Gnash's success rate was next to zero -- again, probably due to the developers' wishes to be as state of the art as possible. More importantly, even useful bits of Flash animation, such as the blog stats available on WordPress.com, did not work either. Nor could Gnash or its plugins handle Flash files exported from OpenOffice.org.

From these experiments, I reluctantly conclude that, while Gnash has made progress, it is not functionally ready to replace the Adobe Flash player. There are still too many everyday situations in which it does not work.

Conclusion

For many, this state of affairs is hardly a tragedy. Many users rightly decry Flash as a high-bandwidth technology that emphasizes style over content; for them, not being able to play Flash files should be considered a blessing rather than an annoyance.

However, for those interested in the spread of free software, the results are disappointing. Clearly, to attract users -- especially average ones -- free desktops need to match the functionality of Windows and Mac OS X. So far, Gnash does not, even though it remains the best hope of providing parity when dealing with Flash files.

The improvement of the beta over earlier Gnash releases is encouraging. Yet, for now, all that those waiting for free Flash support can do is acknowledge the progress and wait for the day when Gnash becomes a complete solution instead of a partial one.

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