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9/15/2011
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Microsoft Joins Apple In Flash-Free Diet

Plug-ins are not welcome in the touch-oriented Metro version of Internet Explorer 10, which arrives with Windows 8.

Top Features Absent From Windows 7
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Slideshow: Top Features Absent From Windows 7
Microsoft is taking a page from Apple's iOS playbook: The Metro version of Internet Explorer 10 in Windows 8, intended for touch-based devices, will not support plug-ins. That means it won't support Adobe's Flash technology, which is delivered via browser plug-in, not to mention other useful browser add-ons.

Though there will also be a traditional--or if you prefer "legacy"--desktop version of Internet Explorer 10 that does support plug-ins, Microsoft clearly covets Apple's plug-in free iOS lifestyle.

Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft corporate VP in charge of Internet Explorer, observed in a blog post that most websites already fall back on HTML5 when plug-in support isn't available. Sounding as if he'd been schooled at Google, he insists that pushing websites toward HTML5 is necessary to advance the Web. (Yet, Google, despite all its advocacy of open Web standards, rescued Flash from an untimely demise by supporting Adobe's technology on Android.)

For an alternate perspective on the future of the Web, see Web Vs. Native Development: There's No Winner

"For the Web to move forward and for consumers to get the most out of touch-first browsing, the Metro style browser in Windows 8 is as HTML5-only as possible, and plug-in free," Hachamovitch wrote. "The experience that plug-ins provide today is not a good match with Metro style browsing and the modern HTML5 Web."

Hachamovitch argues that Metro's plug-in free regime improves battery life, security, reliability, and user privacy. "Plug-ins were important early on in the Web's history," he wrote. "But the Web has come a long way since then with HTML5. Providing compatibility with legacy plug-in technologies would detract from, rather than improve, the consumer experience of browsing in the Metro style UI."

Last year, when he was CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs said as much and more in his merciless condemnation of Flash. But one point he raised hammers home the way that Apple--and presumably now Microsoft--thinks about third-party technology like Flash: "We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers."

With iOS, Apple has a lot more control over the software on its devices than it does with Mac OS X. Much of that is due to the contractually mandated approval process, but it's also due to the absence of plug-ins for mobile Safari. Plug-ins give power to third parties and to the user: They allow users, for example, to block ads, regardless of the wishes of publishers. They also allow companies like Adobe to operate platforms that they control atop the platforms of competitors.

With Metro, scheduled to arrive some time next year with Windows 8, Microsoft is headed along the path paved by Apple, for better or worse.

Dion Almaer, VP of mobile architecture at Walmart.com and former developer with Palm, Mozilla, and Google, said in an email that there both benefits and drawbacks to plug-ins. On the plus side, he said, plug-ins allow new functionality without a core operating system upgrade. But there are potential problems: He observed that it's hard to have plug-ins without affecting performance, which is particularly important on mobile devices.

Microsoft's plan for Metro, he added, "also gives Microsoft much more control of the platform."

That's not necessarily a bad thing: Platform control can be helpful to counter inefficient coding and to ensure a positive user experience on devices with limited memory and power. But negative consequences remain a possibility too.

Still, Almaer expressed optimism about Microsoft's new-found love of open standards. "I am very excited to see the push that Microsoft is making on the Web side of things," he said, "and I hope it continues to pass, and in a standards-based manner (it would be very easy to add functionality just for Metro that delivers an 'embrace and extend' solution)."

Easy indeed: What company among Apple, Google, and Microsoft would seek to build a platform that gives it an advantage over competitors?

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