In the early days of the Internet, when browsers were fairly basic, plug-ins were the preferred method of delivering multimedia content to users, such as streaming video with Adobe’s Flash player. However, the use of plug-ins has always been a security risk, as it offers hackers another way to introduce malicious code into users’ systems. It is also inconvenient for many users as they have to stop and download plugins before using applications like Hangouts.
Google has long been on a crusade to expand the browser’s capabilities, rendering plugins out of date, and has taken one more step toward that goal. The latest Chrome update (developer and Canary versions) eliminates the need to download the Hangouts plugin for video conferencing. The company has accomplished this primarily by using WebRTC to deliver voice and video to user browsers. Although the media is reporting that Chrome has now eliminated the need for plugins through WebRTC, the headlines do not convey the whole story.
While users don’t have to download any software to start a video call in Hangouts, the plugins have not been completely removed. The updated application uses a combination of WebRTC and Native Client technology. WebRTC itself is not standardized yet and is currently mainly supported by Chrome and Firefox, NaCl is not supported by any browser except Chrome. In fact, other browsers are working on their own alternatives. This means that there is still a lot of work to be done to make Handouts plugin-free in all browsers.
In general, browsers have supported plugins through the use of NPAPI, which Google is in the process of removing with the ultimate goal of completely removing it from Chrome. But Google hasn’t removed the plugins, instead the browser uses Pepper, which is an alternative to NPAPI. Pepper uses modern technologies, but is still a plug-in interface. It is required for NaCl support, which is what Hangouts depends on. However, the audio and video part of the conversations is powered by WebRTC and NaCl is only used for other aspects.
Although Google uses its own version of plugins in the form of the Native Client, the end result is that the user does not have to download anything. Therefore, from a consumer perspective, it eliminates the inconveniences and security risks (since NaCl uses sandboxing) traditionally associated with plugins. This may be just the first instance of a large-scale application using WebRTC to eliminate software downloads for multimedia capabilities. Once the changes have been made to the stable version of Chrome, users will be able to initiate a hangout with a single click.