Flash is everywhere on the web nowadays. From YouTube (and the myriad of other video sites), to corporate websites, to online portfolios, a web experience without Flash Player installed isn't really a complete web experience.
The problem with Flash Player is that it isn't free software or open source. Well, it's not necessarily a problem depending on your viewpoint on non-free software is, but even if you are pragmatic and do install the official Flash Player for Linux from Adobe, you have to install it manually, as most distributions don't include it by default. And installing it manually can be a pain.
For some time, the GNU Project has been working to build a free replacement for Flash Player which implements the file format so you can enjoy Flash content while using GPL'd code, which solves the pre-install problem (vendors can safely bundle GPL code) and the non-free problem. That project is called Gnash.
It is not perfect yet, in fact as you may have guessed from the title of this post, it's still only Alpha quality and only implements some of the Flash 7 standard right now. I thought I'd give the latest Alpha release a road test to see how usable it is and how much Flash content will work.
I downloaded the 0.8.1 release source code and compiled it on my Pentium 4 Kubuntu Feisty system. Once you've done the normal ./configure, make, make install routine (you will be told about any dependencies you need when you run ./configure and how to install them on most systems), you have several parts to Gnash.
There's a standalone application which will be installed (which can be launched from the command line with the command gnash). If you supply the command line application with the path to an swf file, it will do its best to play it.
I thought I'd try out the command line utility by playing good old Badger Badger Badger. To do this from the command line, I first downloaded the swf, and then fed it into Gnash:
$ wget http://badgerbadgerbadger.com/badger.swf
$ gnash badger.swf
I couldn't get any sound to play in it, but the animation played pretty much flawlessly (aside from some minor horizontal tearing) which impressed me. CPU usage did spike to around 50% during playback (this is on a 3.0 GHz system), which is a little concerning, but Flash animations are often gloriously inefficient with CPU usage even using the official player.
The other part of Gnash is the browser plugin and is probably the most important part considering that the Flash you'll be finding will be mostly, if not always, found on the web.
If you already have the official Flash Player installed in a Mozilla-compatible browser (I'm using Firefox 188.8.131.52) here, you'll need to move the libflashplayer.so file outside of the plugins directory so that Gnash will take over. Once you have done so, Gnash will handle all Flash files.
YouTube is probably the most obvious test here - so with Gnash installed and ready, I headed over there. Unfortunately, I couldn't get Gnash to play anything and the video widget just sat there with the loading animation. It's quite possible that recent updates to the YouTube widget have made it incompatible with Gnash, because the site boasts that 0.8.0 has compatibility with YouTube.
I also tried several other video sites with no success.
While FLV-based videos don't appear to be very successful with this release, pure Flash-based animations that don't use functionality specific to version 9 of the player. For example, internet cartoon Homestar Runner works pretty well under Gnash (although again, I have had no luck with sound in any of these).
Gnash is a very ambitious attempt, as the Flash format is very big and very proprietary. At the moment, at this fairly early stage of development, Gnash - from what I have seen - is only able to render reasonably simple animations and has problems with major FLV players.
If you are serious about being 100% free software and don't mind losing access to some Flash-based content, Gnash might be the right solution. At the moment though, it isn't quite at the level of a Flash replacement, even for Flash 7-based content, and I'm personally still going to be using the official Flash 9 Player.
Still, Gnash is coming along nicely considering it's started from absolutely nothing and the developers are getting no help from Adobe. If you want to check out Gnash, head over to the project page on the GNU site.
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