Fool Safari into playing videos without the Flash plugin


Fool Safari into playing videos without the Flash plugin
Mac Tip #573, 06 March 2013

Here’s the problem: if you haven’t installed the Flash plugin for Safari (or don’t want to) then you may find you can’t watch videos on web pages. Until now I’ve used Google Chrome instead, as it has its own access to Flash without cluttering your system. But in fact, by setting one small preference you may be able to fool the website into showing you the video in Safari after all. Read on for details.

At the time of writing I’m using Safari Version 6.0.2 (8536.26.17) and Mountain Lion, OS X, Version 10.8.2. Try this trick with older or newer versions and see what happens.

No Flash plugin can lead to problems

Modern Macs come without Flash already installed. Many people (like me) don’t want to install it either, because of security risks, or for other reasons. Many websites though, use Flash for videos and other purposes.

In that case you may see an error message of some kind where the video should be, as in my screenshot below from an item NASA’s Van Allen Probes Discover a Surprise Circling Earth.

The words Missing Plug-in display on the page instead of the video.

The words Missing Plug-in display on the page instead of the video.

Don’t know what Flash is or how it’s connected to videos? This isn’t the place for an explanation, but essentially the Adobe Flash Player is software and many websites depend on visitors using it to view videos or other features. The Flash Player could be a threat to the security of your Mac. Flash isn’t the only option though for videos.

Safari’s Develop menu gives you power

Safari has a slightly hidden setting that adds an extra menu to the Menu Bar. That menu’s called the Develop menu and is of most use to people who make websites, but we’re going to use it too for this Tip.

Show Develop menu in menu bar.

Show Develop menu in menu bar.

  1. Go to the Safari menu and choose Preferences…. Safari’s Preferences appear in a window.
  2. Select the Advanced tab.
  3. Select Show Develop menu in menu bar. The Develop menu will now be available in the Menu Bar in Safari.
  4. Close the Preferences window.

You only need to do this step once.

Flash on iPads and iPhones

One initially controversial decision Apple made was to not include or allow Flash on iOS devices such as iPhones and iPads. That’s why some websites or sections of websites just don’t work on those devices.

Alternatives to Flash

Flash has been really popular with people providing videos on websites. Perhaps partly because of Apple’s decision and the amazing popularity of iOS devices, many websites are now finding non-Flash ways to show videos.

Browser detection may force Flash

When you visit a web page the web server can usually work out quite a lot of information about you, such as which version of which web browser you’re using. That means it knows if you’re using Safari on a Mac, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari on an iPad, and so on.

Sometimes web designers set up their web pages to give you a different version of the whole page, or parts of it, depending which web browser, or User Agent, you use.

The screenshot below shows a tiny fragment of what I know about people who visited MacTips in the last month.

A tiny fragment of what I know about people who visited MacTips in the last month.

A tiny fragment of what I know about people who visited MacTips in the last month.

If you visit a page using Safari on a Mac the web designer may decide to give you the version of a video that requires Flash.

Browser detection may give an alternative to Flash

On the other hand, web designers know that a lot of people use iPads to view web pages and that iPads can’t handle Flash. So they may decide to give iPad-using visitors a version of a movie that doesn’t use Flash. (In the last month 2,591 visits to MacTips were from iPads.)

See where this is leading?

The Develop menu lets your Mac version of Safari pretend to be the iPad version

Now you have the Develop menu available in Safari take a look at it.

Change Safari user agent.

Change Safari user agent.

In particular, notice the second item: User Agent (a fancy name for a web browser).

In the User Agent submenu it’s possible to make your web browser look like a different one, say Safari iOS 5.1 — iPad.

Choose that option and the page refreshes itself.

The changed User Agent might force the web page to display a video you can watch

Now that the web server thinks your web browser is on an iPad it knows the Flash version of the video won’t be of any use to you.

Smart web developers will also make a different version of the video available (not all do). If so, you may now be able to watch that video after all.

Now I can watch the video I wanted, while still using Safari but not Flash.

Now I can watch the video I wanted, while still using Safari but not Flash.

After you’re done you may want or need to change the User Agent back. In my tests, any new tabs or windows automatically reverted to the correct web browser.

Unfortunately this trick doesn’t work all the time, but when it does it’s quick, easy, and saves me opening Google Chrome which can handle Flash videos.

Bonus Tip for those who use Keyboard Maestro

I set up a keyboard command to give me quick access to selecting the correct menu item.

Change Safari User Agent with a Keyboard Maestro macro.

Change Safari User Agent with a Keyboard Maestro macro.

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