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Google gets kudos for tossing older Chrome plug-in API

Sep 25, 20133 mins
Application SecurityChromeCybercrime

Netscape Plug-in Application Programming Interface is showing its age through security headaches and browser instability

Google’s decision to phase out a late 1990s plug-in technology from Chrome was praised by experts as the right move to bolster browser security.

Google announced this week that by the end of 2014 it will end all support for the Netscape Plug-in Application Programming Interface (API), which third parties have used for 15 years to extend the capabilities of web browsers.

While the API developed by browser pioneer Netscape has served the industry well, its age is showing through the security headaches and browser instability caused by the technology, Google said.

“NPAPI’s 90s-era architecture has become a leading cause of hangs, crashes, security incidents, and code complexity,” Justin Schuh, security engineer for Google, said in The Chromium Blog.

Experts agreed Tuesday that the time was right to dump the NPAPI, now that newer and more secure technologies are available with similar functionality.

“Google is definitely making the right move,” said Randy Abrams, research director for NSS Labs. “The NPAPI has some serious security implications that are virtually never good news.”

While tossing the plug-in technology is necessary, duplicating what it does will take some work, Abrams said. “Replacing the functionality of what the NPAPI does within a standard browser will require some serious thought about how to sandbox or otherwise contain potential malicious abuse.”

Nevertheless, alternative technology is available, said IDC analyst Al Hilwa. “It’s just a matter of the IT organizations, the [independent software vendors] or whoever supports this technology to go back and make changes in their applications.”

Google has listed several alternatives, where standard technologies are not yet sufficient. Those options include the sandboxing technology Google Native Client and writing packaged apps in HTML5, JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

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The outdated API is not supported in today’s mobile devices, which is another reason for dumping the technology, according to Google. When Netscape introduced the NPAPI, smartphones and tablets were years away from becoming the center of the universe for the computing industry.

Use of the API has waned considerably. Chrome usage data shows that only a half dozen NPAPI-based plug-ins were used by more than 5% of users in the last month.

Google’s transition away from the technology starts immediately with the blocking of new NPAPI-based plugins from the Chrome Web Store. Developers with apps and extensions already in the store have until May 2014 to update them. After that, the products will be removed from the store home page, search results and category pages.

In September 2014, NPAPI-based apps and extensions will be removed from the store. Those already running in the browser will continue to work until all support is dropped, which is expected by the end of 2014.

In the meantime, Google plans to support the most popular NPAPI-based plug-ins, including Google Earth, Microsoft Silverlight, Google Talk, Java and Facebook Video. Enterprise administrators will be able to whitelist specific plug-ins during the phase-out period.

Google is not alone in abandoning the NPAPI. Mozilla plans to block plugins using the technology in December 2013.