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B.C. website map feature crippled by obsolete plug-in requirement

July 18, 2017

I was disappointed to find that between my wildfire post of July 5, 2015 and today (July 18), the B.C. Wildfire Service website has stopped providing current wildfire data in the form of downloadable KMZ placemark files. KMZ files can quickly and easily be opened in any version of Google Earth—a program freely available for Windows (back to XP), Mac OS X, Linux, Anfroid and iOS.

Fortunately, I have to say that since I emailed the main B.C. government website this afternoon, the options on the B.C. Wildfire Service’s website have changed and there is now an interactive html5 map of active fires, which works just fine.

This afternoon, however, the only option that the B.C. Wildfire Service was pointing me to was the unusable online mapping system called iMapBC.

The provincial government’s iMapBC is an important online portal to a wealth of open government data—much of it of great utility  to British Columbia’s resource sectors, such as mining and forestry—or, at least it should be.

The online iMapBC is available in two flavours: one for mobile devices and another for desktop computers. The mobile version is built on an html5 framework and does not launch in a desktop browser (at least not mine), while the desktop version requires a web browser running Microsoft’s obsolete and deprecated Silverlight plugin, of all things!

Unfortunately, some years ago, during a major upgrade of iMapBC, someone made the ill-conceived decision to bake in a dependency to this unsuccessful Microsoft multimedia framework, just as the everyone else (including Microsoft) was abandoning it.

No website in 2017 should require the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in because almost no web browsers can run it—not Google Chrome (since September 2015), or Mozilla Firefox (after 52.0.x), or Apple Safari (after 6.x), or Opera (after 35.x), or any version of Microsoft’s Edge!

At this point, the only current mainstream browser that still supports Silverlight is Internet Explorer 11, which ships with the Windows 10 operating system and commands a mere 13.26 percent browser share, according to the website Netmarketshare.

And according to the Microsoft Silverlight support roadmap, Windows 10 itself will only continue to support Silverlight for another four years, until October 12, 2021.

The end of an error, some would say

What has happened in the wider web world is that the 22-year-old practice of adding functions to web browsers using plug-in extensions—instigated by the Netscape browser’s 1995 introduction of the Netscape Plugin Application Programming Interface (NPAPI)—has finally, and happily, come to an end.

NPAPI is outdated and carries far too many performance and security liabilities. For that reason, every major web browser (with the exception of the legacy Internet Explorer 11) has dropped support for NPAPI plug-ins—with the one exception being Adobe’s Flash Player (the epitome of an unstable and insecure NPAPI plug-in, which is, nonetheless, still required by far too many websites).

The Internet never took a big shine to Silverlight

Silverlight is a software framework for the creation and playback of web-based multimedia (just like Adobe Flash) which was released by Microsoft in 2007, specifically to compete with Flash.

In its  first few years, Silverlight had a few big name adopters, including the U.S. television network NBC, Amazon and Netflix but it was never widely adopted and it never came close to challenging Flash.

By 2010, only three years after introducing Silverlight, Microsoft was already making public noises about switching to html5.

And at the end of 2012, Microsoft closed down the Silverlight website—the go-to resource for developers—a dead giveaway that the days of the proprietary multimedia framework were numbered.

The last full version of the framework—Silverlight 5—was released December 9, 2011, with only bug fix updates since then.

The official death of Silverlight occurred two years ago, when Microsoft announced on July 2, 2015, that its new Edge browser would not support either Internet Explorer’s ActiveX rich media playback modules or the Silverlight plug-in; opting instead for built-in multimedia support based on HTML5 standards—just like Google Chrome.

B.C. jumps on just as everyone else jumps off

Silverlight appears to have been introduced into iMapBC on on July 18, 2013, as part of a top-to-bottom overhaul dubbed “iMapBC 2.0”.

Remember that by July of 2013, the Silverlight website had been gone for seven months. NBC had also long since dumped Silverlight (following the 2008 Olympics) for lack of an installed end-user base and Netflix had announced its intention to ditch Silverlight for html5 three month earlier, on April 2013 (a year later, that transition was well in hand).

Even DataBC, the brains behind the iMapBC 2.0 upgrade, knew enough to roll out a pure html5 mobile version, as there never was Silverlight mobile support, as some users were quick to point out.

So the question has to be asked why Silverlight was added to iMapBC in the first place, when all the signs in 2013 (and earlier) pointed to the multimedia framework having been forsaken by websites, end-users and even Microsoft and pointed to html5 as the way the worldwide web was going.

And why, in 2017—two years after Google Chrome (the web browser with 0ver a 59 percent user share) dropped support for NPAPI plug-ins—and four years since Google announced the 2015 date—has the necessity for Silverlight not been expunged from iMapBC?

I would prefer that B.C. Wildfire Service still posted Google Earth KMZ placemark files for current wildfire data but the inline interactive map is sufficient.

However, it’s silly that, in the absence of the KMZ files, the interactive wildfire map had to be added just make up for the fact that the desktop version of iMapBC is unusable to the majority of desktop web browsers.

July 19, 2017, update: Chris Spicer of DataBC emailed me information that is not, so far as I can tell, presented on the iMapBC website (certainly not in the iMapBC FAQ)

Basically, the html5-based mobile version of iMapBC: iMapBC 4 Mobile is the replacement for the Silverlight-based desktop version. However, he adds, some users still want access to the Silverlight version. Spicer says that the Silverlight version will be retired later this year, once the user base is satisfied that all required tools have been ported to the HTML5 version.

My initial experience with the mobile version was that it would not load in my desktop browsers. However, it does…eventually.

Chris Spicer also provided a link to WMS protocol Google Earth KLM files in the B.C.Web Map Library. Click the image to enlarge it.

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