Browsers to be crippled for Flash plug-ins…

Well then, one way or another – at least for the foreseeable future – it looks like we have confirmation that we won’t all be using Flash as our dominant way of designing for the web. Via 2lmc, I’ve been directed to Zeldman’s commentary on the Eolas vs. Microsoft patent battle over web plugins. In a nutshell, Microsoft has lost their first attempt to challenge the ruling, and are starting work on removing certain plug-in-related functionality from Internet Explorer. As a result every site using Flash or Java plug-ins across the web is likely to have to rebuild aspects of their site.

So what about all of those companies that have built sites using Flash in good faith? Who do they get to take to court? Could they sue Microsoft? I’m imagining they won’t have that opportunity. It seems to me that means thousands of companies spending millions of dollars in rebuilding and future-proofing and an internet that’s less accessible and useful than it was before. I just wish I had a better sense of whose fault it was? Is it Microsoft for breaking the rules, Eolas for pushing their patent or the patent system itself?

10 replies on “Browsers to be crippled for Flash plug-ins…”

This doesn’t surprise me. During the time I worked at Apple UK, MicroSoft released a “Security Patch” for Windows 95. One of the features of this security patch was that QuickTime stopped working although VideoForWindows continued to work fine.
Go figure.

Wait until this gets to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has tossed out a few of these absurd IP suits. The question is whether it’s cheaper for MS to change IE or to pursue an appeal.

This is _good_ news! I have never seen a single case of flash being warranted for a site. Extraneous ‘flashy’ design which gets in the way of me finding the information I need is what I say 🙂
And Java… Well apart from my Internet Bank, I haven’t seen that being put to any really good use either…

In the most general sense it seems like the best response to a patent is further innovation. The patent system is supposed to foster innovation by making it desirable for companies to disclose their innovations, because they can charge other people for using their invention. Maybe it’s possible for a bunch of major players in the browser field to come together and create a better way of doing something similar, like how the PNG format was created in response to the GIF tax. But the problem with that is that to people who use browsers it seems like the plug-in architecture isn’t really a way of doing things (a method), it’s more of a simple fact that THIS IS WHAT’S DONE. Unless an appeal goes through and we all don’t have to worry about this patent, something’s got to give. Maybe that should be any current problems with the way plug-ins work. (Of which I can think of NONE, at least in general, because it’s just always been this way.)

At the risk of seeming very dense: if this ruling finally comes to fruition, won’t it only affect future browsers? Those of us already using browsers which allow an “automated interactive experience” will not notice the difference. No?

“I have never seen a single case of flash being warranted for a site.”
You seem to exclude the thousands of quality independent flash cartoons. Sure – it’s pretty useless for navigational purposes and it’s a pain in the ass for something like a shopping site. But as with everything it has it’s uses.

To disagree with Michael H. and agree with Tom Morris – it is NOT a good thing. How can it possibly be so? Are fewer options ever good? Is one company deciding what we can and can’t do ever a good thing?

I think more importantly, what we’re talking about is a whole raft of sites that – whether good or bad – mostly worked, being suddenly made more innaccessible or just plain broken. However you package it, that’s a worry.

I’m not generally inclined to be sympathetic to MS, but they, and through them everyone who uses the Web, with the exception of Eolas themselves, ha
ve got the short end of this. This isn’t about whether Flash/Java applets/whatever are a good idea/a sin against design/floor wax and desert topping, it’s about software patents and whether they are a good idea/insufficiently scrutinised/overly broad/allow patenting of effect rather than method.
Eolas’s website described their patent – ” Distributed hypermedia method for automatically invoking external application providing interaction and display of embedded objects within a hypermedia document” – as

First demonstrated publicly in 1993, this invention lifted the glass for the first time from the hypermedia browser, enabling Web browsers for the first time to act as platforms for fully-interactive embedded applications. The patent covers Web browsers that support such currently popular technologies as ActiveX components, Java applets, and Navigator plug-ins. Eolas’ advanced browser technology makes possible rich interactive online experiences for over 500 million Web users, worldwide.

As best I can remember, MS had demonstrated OLE (aka ActiveX) and Apple/IBM (Taligent maybe) had demonstrated OpenDoc in 1992, if not earlier. Both these bits of software allow you to embedded one application within another. It’s the thing that lets you can drop an Excel spreadsheet into a Word document and still have it work properly as a spreadsheet, for instance.
Eolas patent describes the same thing as OLE or OpenDoc, except that everything takes place over a network connection. Doesn’t strike me as amazingly revolutionary. In fact, it seems like a classic case of adding “over the web” to something and it suddenly becoming patentable.
Consider – you invent a process for mass producing diamonds. You patent it. I invent a different process. I patent that. You cannot sue me simply because I’m churning out diamonds by the dozen, because they way I do it is different.
If you write a web browser in Java, the mechanism by which you load an applet is very different from the way IE displays an ActiveX control. In general terms, they’re the same, but the detail is different. If you write a browser in Python that can display Python plug-ins, that would seem to be covered to. A patent that covers all this, which Eolas seems to claim is the case, is essentially patenting an effect, not a method.
It’s rubbish really, and that fact that MS is the company being litigated against is blinding a lot of the coverage to that fact.

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