Keeping an eye on plugins · 2007-12-15 01:00 by Wladimir Palant
It seems that one critical aspect of browsing is finally getting the much deserved attention: plugins. As a regular browser user you are hardly ever reminded of their existence, yet over time I learned that they have a very significant impact on browser’s stability and memory usage. For Adblock Plus, a significant percentage of all reported issues is related to plugins. Part of the problem is the fact that plugins are basically independent programs and the browser has hardly any control over what they do.
But things are going to improve. Early in the Firefox 3 development cycle a bunch of changes were made to make plugin support more stable (something that will hopefully decrease the number of plugin-related Adblock Plus complaints significantly). There was even some discussion about making all communication between the user and the plugin go through the browser rather than giving the plugin some space it can do anything with, and I hope that this will still be implemented after Firefox 3 is released. In the meantime, I was very pleased to discover that Firefox 3 now lists plugins in the Add-on Manager and allows disabling them without jumping through any hoops.
And today I saw that the project dedicated to measuring CPU usage of plugins actually released some working code. Ok, the code is a patch for Mozilla’s codebase and hardly very useful in the current form. However, I hope that Mozilla will adopt some of this code to make sure that extensions can monitor what plugins do. The easier it will become to discover the flaws in plugins, the harder it will be for plugin makers to get away with them.
The complaint about CPU hungry Flash movies isn’t new, I hear about it all the time. However, I never actually noticed this issue myself, probably because it simply wasn’t noticeable on my computer. Until a few days ago my father asked me about a site where Firefox “wouldn’t work properly.” This manifested itself in maxed out CPU which made doing anything almost impossible until you closed the site again. Even on my computer opening this site gives me constant 40% CPU use. The source of the problem wasn’t hard to find — the site’s logo, a pretty simple 440×120 animation. Once it was added to Adblock Plus filters everything was fine again.
I think that something is seriously wrong here. We cannot expect the user to find out what is slowing down his computer, usually he will have neither the knowledge nor the right tools. In the worst case he will simply blame Firefox (after all, Firefox appears in the Task Manager and not Flash). Unfortunately, we cannot blame it on the creators of the Flash movie either, they are usually not programmers and don’t know better. But maybe the development environment should have warned them about using an approach that will burn CPU cycles excessively. Or the Flash plugin should have limited the amount of processing power the animation is allowed to consume. The latter is probably not too popular with Adobe given that it tries to position Flash for web application development — the more reason for browser developers to implement an additional failsafe and to give users a simple way to identify and disable the misbehaving plugin similarly to how it is already done for scripts.
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