November 29, 2006

Test-driving Adobe's Flash Player 9 beta

Author: Nathan Willis

The stable Flash Player plugin for Linux is crusty old version 7 -- trailing more than two calendar years, two major revisions, and one corporate buyout behind the Windows and Mac offerings. But now Adobe has finally unveiled a beta release of Flash Player 9 for Linux. Was it worth the wait? And should you install it now, or hold off a little longer for the official, stable product instead?

The beta is available for download -- without registration -- from Adobe Labs. The downloads are ELF binaries for 32-bit x86 Linux exclusively, and require ALSA for audio. This time around, Adobe has supplied not only a Netscape Plugin-compatible browser plugin, but a standalone GTK player as well.

Both packages are simple gzipped tarballs containing the binary and a readme.txt file. To install the browser plugin, copy it to either your personal plugins folder (on Firefox and Mozilla Seamonkey this should be ~/.mozilla/plugins) or the system-wide plugins folder (typically /usr/lib/firefox/plugins/ or /usr/lib/mozilla/plugins). The standalone player will run from any location.

Do you see what I see?

On an Ubuntu 6.06 system, I made a backup copy of the existing Flash 7 plugin and tried to live exclusively with the Flash 9 beta for a few days. The new version played real-world Flash content without incident. I tested a variety of Flash-driven navigation Web sites and wasn't able to break the player. Likewise, all of the interactive Flash games I tried played fine, including sound. Despite what the release notes say to the contrary, I was able to install the browser plugin for Opera and it worked just as flawlessly as it did in Firefox.

The software was a little quirkier with video. YouTube content worked fine (as one would hope, since it uses Flash 7 video codecs), as did ESPN and a random selection of other video sites. Taking a cue from the problems reported on Adobe's forum, I tested the plugin on content from NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien site, which sports a clip player using Flash 9 video. Initially everything worked fine -- although some users reported sound problems and frozen video, I experienced no trouble, even when playing multiple video streams in different windows. But eventually the hijinks caught up with me, and video playback froze. Only a full reboot restored playback. I also found some site content that would not play at all, including clips from comedycentral.com.

It is clear from the forum thread on this issue that the development team knows about the issue and is making progress in fixing it. Adobe has been releasing minor updates to the Flash 9 beta without making new announcements. At the start of the thread in October, most people reported video freezing immediately, and occasionally browser crashes.

The Flash stands alone

The standalone player is a useful addition. It has a clean interface, uses the system file chooser, and is integrated with the GNOME clipboard (which is critical for video that often sports unintelligible URLs). You can load any .SWF file, local or remote, and bookmark both. For the most part, that is convenient, but since the player lacks a Web browser component, Flash content designed for online use might lose some functionality. It works great for the goofy Flash games linked to from the Woot blog, and if you can dig out the proper EMBED element's URL, it will play Web-based video content, too.

On the down side, the standalone player is pretty spartan. It cannot parse static HTML files with embedded .swf movies, which would help usability. More frustrating, it cannot play standalone Flash video files (.flv) like those found at YouTube, even though it plays their content fine when they come inside a .swf wrapper. Still, I like the concept, and if I were more addicted to Flash games, I would keep the app on my system just for that purpose. In fact, I do plan on keeping it around after I remove the browser plugin to revert to the more stable Flash 7.

I tested the Flash 9 beta against the test suite provided by the Gnash project, and as anticipated it failed a few of the video tests. Likewise, I was able to complete the stress-test at powerflasher.de (and don't worry, the site is safe for work) but the beta's performance was decidedly mediocre. Of course, you may may put little to no stock in what those tests say; in my experience most Flash content makes no great effort to push the performance envelope.

Flash forward

The last tidbit to consider is Adobe's flashsupport library -- an "additional interface support" layer that exposes C bindings to the Flash 9 player's API. So far, this work in progress adds Open Sound System support (which some forum users have reported solved their sound woes), OpenSSL, and International Components for Unicode. The source code for flashsupport is freely available; it is a single file with a license block that says, in part:

Adobe Systems Incorporated grants to you a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, no-charge, royalty-free, irrevocable copyright license, to reproduce, prepare derivative works of, publicly display, publicly perform, and distribute this source code and such derivative works in source or object code form without any attribution requirements.

Interesting, eh? Adobe has swung back and forth regarding both Linux and open source in the past. Free software die-hards still regard Flash as unmitigated evil, but this fall we have seen Adobe donate its ActionScript virtual machine -- itself a big component of Flash 9 -- to the Mozilla Foundation, and now it has released an open source (perhaps even free software) library for the player.

I am not rushing out to embrace Adobe as a free software stalwart (that will take relaxing the restrictions on the company's SDKs, and perhaps an open source Lightroom), but these small steps are commendable, especially for a company so entrenched in the proprietary software model.

As for the Flash Player 9 beta for Linux, it is good to see openness in the development process. You can follow its development at a company-written blog, or chew the fat with other users at Adobe's forum. The plugin isn't ready for daily use yet, but I expect it will be before too long. And the standalone player is worth keeping around while we wait.

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