GPLv3-licensed Flash player Lightspark has released its
latest update, version 0.5.6. The new release includes
expanded media support, experimental support for the Google Maps "Street View" feature, and a browser plug-in compatible with Firefox 10. Despite the new features, however, the prospect of an open source player for all Flash content does not appear to be getting any closer.
But despite introducing a new virtual machine, Adobe did not remove support for AVM1 code from Flash 9 (or subsequent releases), for fear of breaking existing Flash applications. Lightspark version 0.4.3 overcame this limitation by introducing a fallback mechanism that would call on the stand-alone version of Gnash, the GNU Flash player supporting AVM1, whenever it encountered AVM1 files. Lightspark 0.5.0 introduced a host of new features, but by and large new releases in recent years have incorporated fixes designed to support specific Flash-based web sites or applications.
What's new in Lightspark
Such is the case with the 0.5.6 release, which boasts fixes for YouTube and "experimental" support for Google Maps Street View, plus new features implemented to support Flash-based games like FarmVille. Lightspark includes two front-ends, a stand-alone GTK+ player and an NPAPI web browser plug-in. The new release is compatible with Firefox 10 (which itself landed in January 2012), and is the first release with support for using PNG files. For now, source code is the only downloadable incarnation of the release, but the project maintains a personal package archive (PPA), so Debian packages should arrive soon enough.
Of course, the fact that a Flash game is the motivator for a particular feature implementation in no way lessens its importance. In this case, the new features include support for Flash's NetConnection, which is a two-way client-server RPC channel, and support for custom serialization and deserialization of data, which is likely to prove helpful for other client-server Flash applications relying on JSON or XML, too.
We last looked at
Lightspark in 2010; the intervening releases have added much more that is
note than does the 0.5.6 bump on its own. Many more sites are supported,
including Vimeo and Flowplayer (which is a web video playback product, not
a site itself), and the project now uses the Tamarin test suite to run tests for correctness. While Pignotti took a break, Canonical's Jani Monoses served as release manager and improved ARM support for embedded devices. Of particular interest to embedded users is support for hardware-acceleration through an EGL or OpenGL ES rendering back-end. In addition, the project added support for building the stand-alone player and the browser plug-in on Windows.
Gnash and AVM1
On the other hand, there was also an effort undertaken to add AVM1 support to Lightspark, which would have ultimately enabled the project to play all generations of Flash content. The 0.5.1 release, however, dropped Lightspark's attempt to write its own AVM1 interpreter. That effectively makes Gnash a dependency for any Flash content that uses features from Flash 8 or older.
Similarly, for a while Gnash attempted to add AVM2 support to its own codebase, but it, too, eventually abandoned the effort (at the time of the 0.8.8 release). All open source projects are perpetually starved for developers, but perhaps reverse-engineering two incompatible virtual machine implementations is proving to be beyond even the usual level of overload.
The trouble is that this leaves users without an all-in-one open source Flash implementation, a gap which may feel more acute once Adobe releases Flash Player 11.3, the first version that drops the NPAPI version of the plug-in for Linux.
Lightspark can still be installed as a browser plug-in, and call out to
Gnash whenever it encounters AVM1 objects — but Gnash's own future is
uncertain at the moment. Lead developer Rob Savoye told
the gnash-dev mailing list in December that the 0.8.10 release would likely be the last to incorporate new features, as he has been unable to find funding to support further development. Gnash development had been supported by Lulu.com, who funded four full-time developers, but the company withdrew its support in 2010. Since then, Savoye has maintained the code as best he could, but is limited by financial reality to bug-fixes.
In an email, he said "I'd love to continue working on Gnash full time, but I need an income pretty bad at this point, and can only work for free for so long... So I'm looking for contract work at this point, Gnash related or not. I plan to continue hacking on Gnash, it's been a labor of love for 7 years now." Savoye added that he has brought the idea of funding development to multiple open source companies and foundations — including major Linux distributions — but that none were interested.
Gnash is an FSF high priority project, but that status does not include any financial contribution. For its part, Mozilla is on the record as not being interested in contributing or underwriting code for a Flash plug-in, on the grounds that the format is a vendor-controlled proprietary product, and Mozilla's resources are better used developing open solutions.
Perhaps that is true, but the argument generally goes along the lines of
"users are better off without Flash, and everything that Flash does now
will soon be replaced by HTML5." Unfortunately, open source advocates have
been saying that for years and Flash is still pervasive. It would be
betting against history for Linux companies to assume that Flash support
will soon be an issue of the past using any reasonable definition of "soon." In the meantime, one can count on Lightspark to fill in the gaps for many modern games and video sites — and hope that Gnash will find new sources of support on its own.
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