Microsoft

Java gets browser eviction notices from Spartan and Chrome 42

Google Chrome 42 disables NPAPI support by default, and Project Spartan lacks ActiveX support entirely. Both of these changes prevent the use of Java in either browser.

Microsoft's Spartan browser
Image: Nate Ralph/CNET

A recently released update to Chrome has brought a plan to the forefront that has been brewing behind the scenes since 2013: the deprecation of NPAPI (Netscape Plugin Application Programming Interface) Now, NPAPI support is hard disabled in Chrome, and support for NPAPI will be completely removed from Chrome 45 in September 2015.

NPAPI was first introduced in 1995 as part of Netscape Navigator 2.0 to allow content types not otherwise supported to be viewed in the browser — using video plugins such as RealPlayer, QuickTime, or VLC. Occasionally, some websites require it as a form of DRM, such as the Coupons.com coupon printer. Some games are designed for the web using the Unity NPAPI plugin. The Citrix Receiver utility uses NPAPI. Other embedded content types, such as Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and Java applets are displayed in most browsers via NPAPI. For Internet Explorer (IE), this is achieved using ActiveX.

Project Spartan in Windows 10 is being positioned as the leaner, faster replacement to IE, shedding features such as IE 5.5 compatibility mode, and ActiveX extensions — effectively, the same step as is being taken in Chrome.

For most users, the removal of NPAPI is a welcome change — modern web design is now focused on HTML5 and JavaScript, removing the need for additional plugins, which are often fraught with security vulnerabilities and memory leaks, or a measurably negative impact on battery life. That is not to say that these changes will bring about the end of all plugins.

In Chrome, Flash support is contained in the new PPAPI plugin system. Oracle has not provided a PPAPI-compatible plugin for Java, nor has Microsoft for Silverlight. PPAPI is not a standardized technology — it is only supported in Chrome and Opera, and Mozilla has no plans to include it in Firefox. For Windows 10, a new plugin system for Spartan is planned, but details have not yet been made available. However, support for IE 11 will remain for those requiring ActiveX and nonstandard rendering for IE 5.5 compatibility mode.

The end of Java in the browser

The most widespread effect these changes will bring about is the end of Java in the browser. Java has had a contentious relationship with browsers for several years in light of a litany of security vulnerabilities that plague the platform. As a result, IE quickly blocks out-of-date versions of Java, and Firefox and Safari will prompt users before running an applet in any version of Java.

Oracle's solution to this issue is to release more rapid updates for the Java Runtime Engine, a change that has led to widespread criticism, as the Java installer bundles the Ask Toolbar by default, the installation of which Oracle receives a commission for. By releasing frequent security updates to address the multiple security vulnerabilities in Java, Oracle stands to make higher commissions. The behavior of this installer is particularly insidious, as the Ask Toolbar installer runs 10 minutes after the installation of Java, in the event you inadvertently forgot to deselect the checkbox and wished to uninstall immediately. Last month, Oracle doubled down on this practice by bundling the toolbar with OS X versions of the Java Runtime Engine.

Who is still using Java applets?

Many popular gaming websites, such as Pogo.com from Electronic Arts, have games designed as Java applets. Educational materials, such as those from NASA, and various resources for teaching mathematics are presented as Java applets.

Most importantly, however, is the extent to which Java applets are used inside corporate intranets. Due to the difficulty of collecting statistics on the technologies deployed inside of an intranet, it is not clear the extent to which Java is used inside such systems.

What else is affected by this development?

In theory, web pages that rely on Microsoft Silverlight would also be affected by the deprecation of NPAPI and ActiveX. The Silverlight page at Microsoft.com indicates it is used by Netflix to deliver video, though Netflix has abandoned Silverlight in favor of HTML5. Silverlight has been apparently depreciated by Microsoft, though no announcement to that effect has been made. The former product manager for Rich Platforms at Microsoft declared it dead in September 2011, in a rather emphatic video posted to USTREAM.

Puzzlingly, Silverlight enjoys relative popularity for rich media content in Japan, with multiple web-based applications that utilize the technology. The popularity of the platform even prompted an official mascot character to be introduced in that country.

What's your view?

Do you have dependencies on NPAPI plugins for your workflow, or do you have a Java applet or Silverlight program that you frequently use? Or, do you prefer to see these technologies fade away in favor of HTML5? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

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About

James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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