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January 20th, 2015

Saying Goodbye to Java the Hard Way

The Best of Ken Starks

We were fortunate enough to have a donated space in the expo hall at Texas Linux Fest this year. Carolyn Hulsey, who is one of our directors, manned the Reglue booth for us on Friday. She jokingly asked if I wanted her to be our “booth babe” this year. She was, indeed, all of that.

What was truly humbling was the number of people who recognized us without introduction. When someone approached, I stood and extended my hand in greeting. More often than I would have thought, the person shook my hand and told me, “I know who you are.”

free softwareWow…just wow.

It was one of these people who later pursued a three day email discussion with me on free-as-in-beer software. And yeah…we all know the benefits. But what of the negatives?

His take on Linux distributions?

“Anyone paying for a Linux distribution is putting their money down the drain. What they should be doing is putting that money into the hands of a free distro developer so (s)he can make their distribution better.”

My long-time friend and mentor, Carla Schroder, recently had a piece published at Linux.com. The article asked a good question concerning Linux distros and she based her article on the different answers to the question…

“Where are they now?”

These distros highlighted had a major impact on The HeliOS Project and later, on Reglue: Mepis and Libranet.

When I first started The HeliOS Project I was using Librenet on my personal computer. Libranet had a per-user licensing agreement in order to make the effort pay and a single user license was $69.00 If I remember correctly. Jon Danzig and I worked out a multiple licensing agreement that we could both live with. The fact is, Jon almost gave those licenses away because he believed in what we were doing. Jon’s untimely death in 2005 eventually resulted in the Libranet venture striking their tents and moving on.

I consider Libranet as the first extremely easy Linux distro for the masses. However, we were left with no other choice but to change our flagship distro.

Mepis Linux worked amazingly well for us. We used Mepis on all of our outgoing computers until 2010. We put Mepis Linux on over 200 computers during Lynn Bender’s Linux Against Poverty event in 2010.

Many of those systems are still in use today. Three and a half months ago, we were contacted because one of our Reglue systems was no longer working. A quick glance at the boot screen told the whole story.

It was Mepis 8 still running that computer, with KDE 3.5 working in all it’s splendor. The problem was an aging Nvidia card/driver and some serious dirt and dust within the machine. We replaced the computer with a decent dual core and our current Mint KDE LTS. Everyone is again happy. At least for another 4-5 years.

That Mepis system ran from 2010 until the late winter of 2014 without one major problem.

The three day email discussion I mentioned above was ignited by our difference of opinion pertaining to the “free as in beer” culture and mindset that encompasses most of the Linuxsphere.

His thoughts on the matter? “Charging for a Linux distro or even software being developed for Linux is obscene.” Linux and free open source software should never have a price tag. Also, it should never have proprietary drivers and apps within.

Ever.

We agreed to disagree. My job is to help disadvantaged kids get a functional and useful computer into their home. I can’t very well set a new computer up in a kid’s home and then give him a long list of things he cannot do with it.

“I’m sorry there kiddo. You can’t watch a lot of videos or use your school’s website because they depend on Flash. I’m also sorry that you can’t play on miniclip.com or use some of your apps. Java doesn’t work on your computer. But hey…ain’t using Linux great anyway? Make sure to tell all your friends how great Linux is.”

disable javaGoogle’s act of stripping Java support from Chrome severely cripples that browser. What they intend to replace it with still remains to be seen. Is Chrome following Apple’s lead in refusing to include Flash? At first blush, it would certainly seem so.

At this time, it’s unclear to me how Chrome merits any consideration as Reglue’s daily driver on the information highway.

And I’m sure someone wants to mention Iced Tea and other open source attempts to produce replacements for Flash and Java. Yeah, they work…sometimes. My experience is that they fail at the exact time and place I need them to work.

As much as I agree in principle with the FOSS doctrine, that philosophy cannot stand the full weight of day-to-day pragmatism without the roof falling in. The inclusion of Flash and Java into the Linuxphere is a necessary evil for many of us.

We’ve enjoyed success in placing Reglue machines, but some think we’ve compromised the free open source software principles to do so. Really…? Compromised principles? I’m not here to start a religious war nor am I here to place my allegiance in any particular camp. What I am here for is to express my opinion on what works best for the majority of most everyone.

Most everyone that uses a computer anyway.

Sometimes, in the Linux/free software world, things we thought would be here forever can go away quickly, leaving everyone in a state of confusion and surprise. The relatively recent demise of SolusOS and Fuduntu come immediately to mind.

As an aside, I wonder how my argumentative friend would feel if he donated money to these distros?

“What they should be doing is putting that money into the hands of a free distro developer so (s)he can make their distribution better.”

Both were great developers, but did any donations to those projects stop them from being canceled? Even though many people donated to either one, in the end it didn’t make a whit of difference. They are gone and seemingly never to return.

But wait, let’s talk about that little Google Chrome maneuver that caught many of us by surprise last May. In no way could it be described as anywhere near a pleasant surprise….

When I updated to the 35.xxx release of Chrome, I figured it was business as usual. I rarely review the release notes unless I need to see if a certain feature is now supported. Maybe I should be checking for features that have had their guts ripped out.

While it was publicly announced, many of us didn’t get the memo. Google dropped all Flash support in Chrome. It’s their plan to make Chrome faster and more secure.

Really?

One of the reasons I left Firefox for Chrome was for its built-in support for Java/Flash. Why these two are intertwined I have no clue. Regardless, those websites that worked previously with Chrome no longer did…it simply said that the Java plugin was missing and it offered a link to download and install it.

I remember thinking to myself, “Oh crap…this can’t be good.”

And it wasn’t. A short search for some answers came quickly:

Java plug-in missing after upgrade to 35.0.1916.114 (Linux)Java plug-in missing after upgrade to 35.0.1916.114 (Linux)

Two years ago, Reglue made Chrome the default browser in our default distro simply because Java (and many Flash) woes in Linux were dispatched quickly by using it. Ever-increasing difficulty with Flash and Java in Firefox made the switch seem sensible.

Now, that just ain’t so.

Google will do what Google will do but a steamroller change like this is going too far, even for Google. We’ve found our way back to Firefox and it feels like putting on an an old pair of comfortable jeans. It just feels right.

There is a passionate discussion among devepers concerning this “problem.” The plugin wasn’t omitted…it was blocked. Here, you can read for yourself the anger among those who develop for Chrome. Potentially millions of users woke up to find that their Chrome browser no longer supports Java. If it doesn’t support Java, then for many of us, Chrome is practically useless.

My point is that we shouldn’t need to use multiple browsers for different tasks. But that comes full circle to my point: In this instance and many others in the free software world, free can suck.

While I am sure there are a number of cases where we could cite the same sort of thing happening in commercial products, I don’t think any stockholder or board of directors would support a main feature being gutted from their product. Not without replacing it with something better. It appears that Google doesn’t have any such compunction.

As user edtoml points out in the above link:

“Getting rid of a ‘bad’ API can be a good thing. Not converting critical plugins is bad verging on evil.”

Of course, that depends. If you are trying to forcibly guide Internet applications into certain directions, then this is the course Google should be taking. Microsoft made a living out of it. Don’t get me wrong, Flash and Java suck and they need to die by fire, but killing them off before alternatives exist is nasty business.

And of course, that brings us again to something we, as Google users, have come to understand.

Google is rapidly becoming our Internet overlords, if they aren’t already. Gmail and Chrome are not Google products…we are the products. We are the marketable items. Gmail and Chrome are simply the useful playgrounds given to us in order for them to collect our data. Why does the choice between a red pill and a blue pill come to mind?

So as always, the devil is in the details. Am I ready to give up my Gmail account and Chrome browser?

Gmail no, Chrome, yes. I may even revisit Opera. But I am dialed in by a factor of 10, looking for alternatives that can give me the same features without compromising ease of use. Let there be no doubt: If there ever should be such a product to come down the pipe that replaces a Google offering, I will certainly use it.

And I will most certainly pay for it if necessary.

**********

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on The Blog of Helios on July 13, 2014 under the title “When Free Can Suck.”

Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

16 comments to Saying Goodbye to Java the Hard Way

  • I’ve NEVER enabled Java in any browser. I have no clue why any sane person would do so. Not only does it pose as many security risks as Flash, but also since there are very few sites using it. Add to that my aversion towards anything Java related – I consider it a badly designed programming language and system, let alone that Larry is involved with his particular taste for “IP violations” – and to me it’s a no brainer. No Java for me.

  • You seem to intermix Flash and Java as if they are the same thing. You said, “Google dropped all Flash support in Chrome.” That simply is not true. Adobe is still releasing Flash Plugin updates for the 11 series… for security fixes… and that plugin works with Firefox and any other browser that can use older style plugins… but Google maintains the current branch of Flash in Chrome (not Chromium). In the current version of Chrome for Linux it includes Adobe Flash Player 16.0.0.257. In Chrome just use this URL to see: chrome://plugins. So there is a big disparity between versions. Every time there is an updated Flash in the current series, Google updates Chrome.

    I’ve gotten to where I don’t install the 11.x Flash plugin. For the sites I visit there isn’t much Flash so it works out well most of the time… but I’m not trying to play Flash-based games… which is probably different for Children. Users of the very popular iOS devices (iPhone and iPad) have lived without Flash support since the beginning. Websites should really not be producing new Flash content. There is an alternative, it is called HTML5. I’m not a fan of Chrome but when I do run across a website that is useless without Flash, I’ll fire up Chrome. Sites that require the JavaJRE? I don’t use any that I’m aware of although I do have the icedtea-web package installed.

    I think you should include both Chrome and Firefox… and maybe even Seamonkey… mainly because of the differences in features you mentioned but also it is handy to have at least two browsers that use different settings… so one can be logged into the same web service more than one… which is especially good for testing. Opera is mostly dead these days and is based on the rendering engine of Chrome anyway.

    While Flash and Java-based web content is slowly dwindling over time unfortunately sites like PBS have are still using it even for new stuff. PBS should really switch to HTML5 video… but I’m not sure what to do with their fairly large catelog of Flash-based games. I usually complain when I visit the Linux Journal website and they have an embedded video they’ve produced and serve from YouTube… and it’s only format (oddly) is Flash-based. They seem to ignore me.

    Regarding free software purism vs. being more pragmatic… I too feel torn. I definitely prefer the free-as-in-speech stuff over the free-as-in-beer. I don’t use proprietary drivers… but I’m not trying to run Steam stuff. When it comes to drivers it is just painful to run the proprietary stuff because (most of) it has to be updated every time there is a kernel upgrade.

    Regarding paying for Linux or software… as long as that software is available as free-as-in-speech, why not? Who are we really talking about here? Who charges for their distribution? I guess there are a few but the elephant in the room is Red Hat. Why pay for RHEL? Well, it is Red Hat Network, support and binary updates. If you don’t need all of that, use CentOS instead. Is Red Hat a good investment? Considering how much they contribute back to the Linux ecosystem and that they release everything as free-as-in-speech, I’d say they are definitely a good investment. Pay for or contribute to whatever you use if you can.

  • Mike

    I respect what you are doing Ken, it can’t be easy.

    I strongly believe that using proprietary drivers/apps is bad for Linux. It props up crap like Flash that should, indeed, die horribly and it allows the nasty specter of DRM to wedge its foot in the door. A little temporary discomfort at the loss of these proprietary systems is a small price to pay for a free (as in speech) system.

    That said, compromising some FOSS principles in order to get kids badly needed resources is completely understandable. Unfortunately, almost all schools have bought into the Microsoft/Apple/Adobe kool-aid making it virtually impossible to equip a child with a 100% FOSS solution.

    In the end people need to realize that companies like Adobe, Google, and Microsoft have a vested interest in proprietary software to protect their profits. They will ALWAYS make it less convenient to use FOSS than proprietary alternatives. This is not because of some deficiency in FOSS (e.g. it doesn’t work 100% with Flash, or Java, Netflix, or MS Office documents etc.) but a deficiency in end users who are willing to sacrifice their freedom for the latest whiz-bang feature/app/website being pushed by some company.

  • lpbbear

    Regarding Chrome. As another poster mentioned Chrome does include builtin Flash. Beyond that I am not a fan of Chrome. I use both Chrome and Firefox. With Firefox I typically run over 200 open tabs. It generally cruises along with an occasional crash. It restarts and recovers all tabs with no problems. I use Chrome for a few FB pages only. Generally it will run fine but eventually it goes bonkers and begins to consume every last mb of memory my system has and then some. Once I get it closed, whether it is from it going bonkers or simply normally closing it, I almost always have to close a bunch of stubborn processes it left running. Firefox is a much more stable browser for Linux.

    As to commercial distributions one should keep in mind that every commercial version of Linux and especially those that were/are desktop oriented have been attacked by Microsoft in one form or another. Corel Linux, Xandros, Linspire/Lindows, Caldera, TurboLinux etc. All were attacked by Microsoft.

    In my opinion a good commercial Linux is what is needed to move Linux to a more consumer visible operating system platform. With the major changes happening to the computing marketplace with regards to smart phones/tablets etc. I doubt we will ever see another commercial Linux product before the desktop model has become passe.

  • Eli Cummings

    Ken – goals and principles don’t always line up (not sure if they ever do). Stick with goals if you want to see something visible.

    As for Java and Flash, not sure what sites require it. I have not had them for years and have not had any issues. Once in a while I see something that says I need to install Flash for some kind of content but it’s usually content that is an adjunct to text content and I don’t think I’m missing anything of any significant value but that is obviously a function of the sites I go to.

  • W. Anderson

    It is unfortunate tat Linux desktop must have Java and Flash in order to be of any productive use, particularly given the draconian and backward thinking and actions of both Oracle Corp. and Adobe for these products.

    What especially galls me is that the Linux Foundation gladly and proudly welcomes Adobe and Oracle as members, which represents an anathema to the principles of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS).
    No doubt Jin Zemlin is concerned only with the benefits of Linux and FOSS for his “paying” corporate sponsors, even to the eventual detriment of Linux and FOSS overall.

  • Tim

    As a Java developer, I feel like it’s my right to say that Java belongs in the backend. Let HTML5, CSS and Javascript handle the frontend.

  • I’m also a Java developer, and I agree with Tim that it belongs to the backend.
    The problem is: I’m a Brazilian, and most home banking sites (at least all I know / use) rely on Java to “increase security”.
    Their use cases simply cannot be covered with HTML / JavaScript. For example: Banco do Brasil identifies the hardware (probably with processor, memory, disk, etc), and that information is not available in the normal browser. Another bank, Banrisul, handle smart card readers to their customers, so they can use their same card on home banking. Also not possible with web technologies.
    In practice, I use Firefox. Previously I had switched to Chrome, but the used memory is just absurd. At that time, I had to keep Firefox to handle my home banking needs.

  • Duncan

    Here in the US, I’ve not used flash or java in years. My bank (BofA if it matters) switched directly from some proprietary MS-platform dialup banking software to generic internet banking (scripting, no more required) back in the 90s, and for some years after I switched to Linux instead of downgrading to eXPrivacy in 2001, I in fact used kde’s konqueror with it — the fact that it worked being one reason I stayed with the bank. Ultimately the konqueror devs made plain they considered it little more than a toy and I switched to firefox, but the bank remained, and remained problem free with my browser of choice. =:^)

    These days I run minitube for youtube and generally ignore flash and videos elsewhere — if a site doesn’t work without flash (or java, but I very rarely find a site needing that these days) I find another site, and a few times that has affected where I spent my money too, when I either couldn’t get the information I wanted on a particular product, or couldn’t buy it once I had the information I needed. Their loss or gain, particularly where money is involved, as I’m pretty particular when voting with my wallet and if they don’t support freedomware I simply vote with my wallet for someone else. This also affects which online tax service providers I use when I do my taxes.

  • Wogster

    I really don’t care if software is open source, open copy or simply at no financial cost to me. I just want my computer to work. It’s likely that 99.999% of computer users feel the same way.

    The issue is when you get something that updates quite frequently like Flash, where the Windows Version is V46 and 99% of sites need at least V43 and the Linux version is V4 because the vendor has made the decision that people not using Windows do not matter.

  • Sum Yung Gai

    This may not be a problem for a lot of adult home users (e. g. Duncan), but it can be a HUGE problem for schoolchildren. A lot of schools have started using Blackboard.com for all homework assignments. Unfortunately, Blackboard requires Java. That presents a direct and immediate problem for schoolkids who want to use Chrome.

    This is also starting to apply at the collegiate level, too. Some colleges and universities also have decided to rely on Blackboard.com for coursework. So, if a high schooler decides to his his or her Reglue-provided computer to college, and that professor is a Blackboard disciple, that’s a problem for that kid.

    There are other educational applications that teachers are including in their curricula. Many of these “edu-apps” rely on Flash, Java, and in some cases even Microsoft Silverlight. Those teachers have both their effort and their egos invested in those curricula, so they’re not going to easily change that.

    I, too, despise the prevalence of proprietary file formats and the by-design lock-in they perpetuate. We will not win this overnight. My view is to get people on a Free Software platform, even if I have to hold my nose and install Flash, the proprietary nVidious video driver, MP3/H264, all that. I’d love to have everyone on WebM hi-def video, Ogg Vorbis audio, and HTML5. And someday we will. Step 1 is getting them on a Free Software platform.

    Will this work? History gives us an indicator that yes, it will. Note what happened with several edu-apps that “require Microsoft Internet Explorer” to function, after Apple’s Mac OS X came out and started becoming popular. All of a sudden you increasingly saw, “works on PC and Mac!” Well, to “work on Mac”, you’ve got to be at least somewhat cross-platform. There is no Internet Explorer for Mac OS X (Safari WebKit based, which is based on Konqueror’s KHTML). That’s when you started seeing more movement toward Flash and Java (“works on Mac!”).

    As GNU/Linux and other Free platforms continue to get more market share (and they are, just look at the Chromebooks), companies will want to sell to them, too, just like the Apple Mac users.

    And that’s why I believe Ken is taking the right approach here. Whatever needs to be done to get them on a Free platform such as GNU/Linux, that’s what we need to do. You’ve got to crawl before you try to win the Olympic 100m dash.

    –SYG

  • CFWhitman

    In the following paragraph:

    “While it was publicly announced, many of us didn’t get the memo. Google dropped all Flash support in Chrome. It’s their plan to make Chrome faster and more secure.”

    It says “Flash” where it should say “Java” (since Flash is still fully supported in Chrome).

    In actuality what Google did was to drop support in Chrome for NPAPI plugins in favor of their own PPAPI plugins. They formerly supported both APIs for backward compatibility reasons. Java is just the major thing affected by this since it is the biggest thing that still existed in Chrome as a Netscape style plugin. Most other additional functionality for browsers is in the form of extensions or add-ons (though I see several NPAPI plugins available in my Firefox browser, but they pretty much all are unnecessary to interact with the content that they can handle).

    My experience with Iced Tea is that it just works these days. I haven’t seen the need to install a different Java for Linux for a while. However, that does not matter for Chrome, since the Iced Tea plugin for Java is also a Netscape style one. Until or unless a Pepper plugin or an extension for Java is developed, no Java will work in Chrome.

    However, I almost never encounter a need for Java to work in the browser. It’s usually disabled by default, and I rarely find a reason to temporarily enable it (I can’t recall doing that for all of 2014). Pretty much any Java programs that I run are downloaded and run from my desktop (things like Squirrel SQL, and Jedit; my nephews and nieces run Minecraft).

    I generally prefer to run Firefox anyway, but Java is not the reason I don’t use Chrome as much. As for Flash, sometimes it is a reason to break out Chrome or Chromium (since Chromium supports PPAPI plugins as well) because there are newer versions of Flash available for those browsers thanks to the fact Google actually develops the PPAPI versions of Flash. The NPAPI Linux plugin for Flash is in maintenance mode and only gets security updates. Whether Shumway for Firefox ever will ever actually become a practical solution I’m not sure, especially since Flash seems to be on its way out.

  • Duncan

    @ Sum YG

    Were I in school and needed whatever proprietary to work with blackboard.com or whatever, there’d be two ways it could go.

    1) Since I don’t agree to the usual damage liability waivers, etc, on software (including that covered by the GPL, but of course sources are available in that case) I don’t have the sources to, to actually examine what they do before I agree to take responsibility for it, I obviously can’t agree to have such software on a device I purchase or am admin-responsible for. In that case, they’d make other arrangements or I’d not be going to school there or at least not using devices I’m legally responsible for agreements on with them.

    2) One such possible “other arrangement” is that I work on devices provided and administrated by someone else, such that they agree to whatever, not me. If the school, or in my case since I’m an adult in the workforce, not in school, if my employer, chooses to assume such liability on their equipment and I just use it, fine, their agreement, not mine.

    2a) This same sort of arrangement could potentially apply to reglue’s donated equipment, provided it’s them making that agreement, not me. Of course in reglue’s case, it’s generally minors getting the equipment, with reglue and then the parents assuming legal responsibility not the minors, so it’d be the parents who would be taking on that responsibility. Not a problem as long as I’m not such a parent.

    3) Obviously once it’s college we’re talking about, the user themselves generally has some responsibility. But college is generally paid, and I’d simply take my own money and grants and loans, etc, and find a college where I didn’t have to sign against my conscience.

    4) I’m old enough and without kids so I’ve not had to worry about it for myself or them, but from what I’ve read, in at least the specific case of blackboard.com, there’s unrelated potential ethical/copyright issues as well. Apparently (and for its anti-plagerism features, etc, to work, I can see the technical need) users have to sign over various rights to their works to blackboard.com, as well. As such, were I to be a potential blackboard.com user, there’s at least potentially significant other issues that I’d have to deal with as well, which could on their own prove to be insurmountable barriers to my use of that service. But as I said I’m old enough and without kids of my own, so I’ve not had to look into that or think about it too hard. It’s simply a potential problem I’d have to look into were I to be in a position of using the service.

    Duncan

  • Andrew McGlashan

    Java …. “Just Another Vulnerability Announcement”.

    Seriously though, I wish we could do without it. With some machines (servers), you need Java to do remote console and virtual media management AND to make it worse, that Java apps need OLD versions — JRE 7 Update 75 is current, but if you don’t have that version available before Oracle make it impossible to download from April, 2015, then you won’t be able to use these server management tools.

    You can have browser exceptions and that is the only way that I allow Java in the browser, specifically for these server management tools.

    I wish Flash would die, but unfortunately, that isn’t likely to happen any time soon. And sometimes Flash just works better than HTML5 video in some cases.

    So if you wanted the TL;DR version, well it’s just not that simple.

  • duskoKoscica

    In a way Java is nice, but there are security issues.
    Aldo, I need to say that there are nice stuff, if you have some array you just add Synchronized in front of the array and you are good to go into MT

  • […] Saying Goodbye to Java the Hard Way by Ken Starks. Published January 20, 2015. A look across the chasm between FOSS idealism and FOSS […]