You may have heard about Google’s new voice and video chat plugin for Gmail, which lets you use voice and video through the Gmail web interface. You may have also heard that the plugin is standalone (does not require other plugins) or an alternative to using Flash for voice and video chat solutions. Like many, I thought that because Gmail voice and video chat was a plugin, it did not require Flash at all. However, further research showed that this was not the case.
Testing whether Flash was required for the Gmail voice and video chat plugin involved a few steps. First, I needed to make sure I was using a browser that did not have a Flash plugin installed. I booted Windows XP, opened Firefox 3, and went to about:plugins. It confirmed that no Flash player of any kind was installed.
Next, I installed the Gmail voice and video chat plugin. This process completed without any errors or warnings at all and started up Firefox for me when I was finished. Finally, I logged into Gmail and searched for someone that had the plugin installed so I could verify that the plugin was working without Flash.
Finding someone that had the plugin installed was a bit tricky, but eventually I found one. Clicking on the “Video & more” link, produced the following menu:
At this point I figured there was little that could go wrong since I had already made it this far without issue. However, clicking the “Start voice chat” or “Start video chat” items in the menu produced this:
For easier quotability and to show you where the link points to, here is the text of the error message:
Flash is required to make a call.
Click here to install now.
So my question was answered: the Gmail voice and video chat plugin requires the Adobe Flash Player.
Prior to running the test, I did some searching to find out for myself if the Gmail plugin required Flash. The results were inconclusive. Some people reported vaguely that they had problems but installing Flash fixed them. A news site claimed that “The video chat feature runs on flash [sic]” without providing any supporting evidence. This wasn’t good enough for me, which is why I ran the tests.
Why would people be led into believing that the Gmail plugin did not require Flash in the first place? Primarily I think this is because people assumed that since the plugin was a true Firefox plugin (not an addon), that it would have all the functionality it needed built-in, without relying on other plugins such as Flash. Indeed, viewing about:plugins after installing the Gmail plugin shows the following new plugins (why it needs a “Google Update” plugin is beyond me – perhaps a topic for a different post):
|Google Talk Plugin||npgoogletalk.dll||Google Talk NPAPI Plugin||application/googletalk|
|Google Update||npGoogleOneClick6.dll||Google Update||application/x-vnd.google.oneclickctrl.6|
Many news reporting sites and commentators were blinded by this assumption and incorrectly reported that the Gmail voice and video chat plugin was free of Flash:
- “Gmail Video and Voice uses a proprietary plug-in, not Flash” (CNET News)
- “The plug-in—a proprietary, non-Flash-based system” (Macworld, reprinted from PC World)
- “It is *not* another Flash thing, is the first true parallel processing app for video conferencing” (a comment on Techcrunch’s post)
What bothers me especially about this is not that some sites reported the Flash requirement incorrectly (though that bothers me), but that none of the news sites I found reported that Flash was required. I guess everyone assumes we live in a world where everyone has Flash and that this is a perfectly fine assumption to make. I hope my last post has made it clear that such an assumption is not fine as there are good reasons to avoid Flash.
Why doesn’t Google just use Flash for Gmail voice and video chat? It seems that Flash does not support the P2P or NAT functionality that Google requires:
- “Flash alone can’t do p2p transfer with nat piercing“
- “The addon they created is a simple mini-Flash Media Server proxy server connecting in a P2P fashion to the other peer“
Hopefully this article will finally lay the myth to rest. The Gmail voice and video chat plugin does indeed require Flash.