Firefox and Videos without Flash

firefox300Update: On July 13, 2015 (almost a year after the publication of this post), Firefox 35 was released, finally bringing native H.264-encoded MP4 support to all desktop platforms.

I really want to love Firefox again, I really do. It’s open source, the add-on library is massive, and (because it’s open source) it’s really easy to get involved. I had used Firefox for everything for quite a long time, but then I got tired of Flash, and that’s when Firefox fell apart for me.

You see, it’s 2014, and videos online are a very popular thing. Probably 20% of the pages you view on a daily basis have a video embedded somewhere. Most of these videos are H.264-encoded MP4s, fewer are WebM (either VP8 or VP9), and even fewer are OGG (seriously, try to find an embedded OGG video outside of Wikipedia). To get an idea for the magnitude of this situation, YouTube (the largest online library of embed-able videos in existence) still has not finished transcoding their entire library (all currently available as H.264-encoded MP4s) to WebM, and Vimeo (the second largest) only uses H.264-encoded MP4s with no plans to transcode their library to WebM or OGG.

Well, can you guess what Firefox on a Mac still doesn’t support? If you guessed H.264-encoded MP4s, you’re right! You also get a lesser prize if you guessed VP9-encoded WebMs, which really aren’t all that popular yet.

If you really want to view the most popular online embedded video format with Firefox on a Mac, you will need to install Flash. Firefox on Windows and Linux has supported H.264-encoded MP4s natively without Flash for quite some time, but not Firefox on a Mac. The people behind Firefox on a Mac don’t want to support H.264-encoded MP4s natively without Flash, because H.264 is a proprietary codec, meaning it’s not open source.

Well, I ask you, what is Flash then? Flash is proprietary software, it’s not open source either. Firefox’s solution to viewing the most popular video format online is to install proprietary software, which brings me to a very important question. If I need to install proprietary software to view the most popular video format online, why don’t I simply use a proprietary browser (like Safari or Chrome) instead of Firefox and continue to not use Flash?

Really, Firefox, what is the point if not to spread the value of open source software by making the web a better place through a free and open source browser which simply offers the best possible web experience to the average user? If you do not provide the ability to view the most popular video format online without the help of proprietary software, you have made the web a worse place for your users and damaged your efforts to promote open source software by promoted a piece of proprietary software as the only solution to a problem which almost every single one of your users will face.

Now, to be fair to Firefox and anyone reading this article searching for a solution, you can install Greasemonkey and ViewTube to view videos on the video sites themselves (YouTube, Vimeo, etc) without the need for Flash, but due to the limitations of these types of scripts, it will not work for videos embedded elsewhere, like the Vimeo video embedded below. This is not a solution, as more videos are consumed via embeds elsewhere than on the video sites themselves. The solution is to bring native H.264-encoded MP4 support to Firefox so that users no longer need to rely on proprietary software to view the most popular video format online.

(Note: The content of the above video from The Sunday Times: Culture is not related to this rant, except for the fact that it’s an amazing embed-able H.264-encoded MP4 video that you still can’t view on Firefox without the help of Flash.)

Your move, Firefox.

I’ve Gone Flashless

Last week, I decided to completely remove Flash from my MacBook Air, just to see if I could survive without it, but what I noticed instead were some rather interesting performance improvements. I had about a two-hour increase in battery life, and I never heard the fans run once throughout the entire week. That was enough to convince me to remove it from my iMac too.

Uninstalling Flash was easy. I just downloaded the uninstaller, but you could also simply remove the related files from /Library/Internet Plug-Ins/.

Living without Flash was far easier than I thought. I simply installed the YouTube5 and HTML5 Audio Safari extensions, and I was ready to go. These two extensions dig deep into the Flash players from some of my favorite audio and video sites to grab the source file and present it in a pleasant non-Flash player. Yes, Vimeo does use an HTML5 player now, and YouTube has an HTML5 beta, but I have run into some embeds that still use the Flash players, and the YouTube5 extension seems to get around most of those with ease.

I have found that a shocking number of sites have Flashless alternatives when they realize that you don’t even have Flash installed, but there are of course some that absolutely require Flash, and that’s where Chrome and its built-in Flash plugin comes in handy. At Preferences -> Advanced in Safari, I checked “Show Develop menu in menu bar,” then set a keyboard shortcut at System Preferences -> Keyboard -> Keyboard Shortcuts for “Google Chrome” in Safari. Now, when I encounter a page that absolutely requires Flash, all I have to do is press control-c to open the current page in Chrome.

If your laptop has a curiously short battery life and overactive fans, I highly recommend uninstalling Flash.