About Browser Extensions
Browsers have come a long way since their early days when parsing and rendering html pages was their primary function.
Even today we can find command line browsers like Lynx on that still follow the same principles of navigating through URLs in a web page.
However today browsers do much more than just render and display web pages. Browser vendors allowed developers to add small chunks of code to add functionality or modify existing ones in a browser.
Internet Explorer became the first major browser vendor to support extensions in 1999 and was followed by Firefox(2004), Opera(2009), Chrome & Safari(2010) and Edge(2016).
What Are Browser Extension?
The launch of the chrome webstore allowed developers to build powerful browser extensions that indirectly led chrome to gain a significant market share.
In 2015, a common working group under W3C created the draft specification for a standardized API(Application Programming Interface) named the WebExtensions API for browser extensions.
Other browsers like Opera and Firefox created their own API’s but now follow the WebExtensions API to ensure better compatibility with Chrome extensions.
Microsoft Edge is now being rebuilt as a Chromium based browser which will allow users to use Chrome extensions directly inside Edge.
Uses Of Browser Extensions
- Controlling the content loaded to a webpage(ad blockers)
- Allowing data to be presented right in the browser(password managers),
- Shortcuts with information from web services(Google Drive/Gmail),
- Bookmarklets and plugins.
For example; in the image below the Amazon browser extension helps to find the best deals on the Amazon.com
However plugins are quite different from extensions as they enable new functionality like the Adobe Flash Player plugin which was included in all browsers, but later removed due to overwhelming vulnerabilities.
Privacy and Security Concerns
Privacy concerns have been one of the dominant security concerns for developers and browser vendors since their early days.
Unlike social networks and websites that can track information about users when they visit their website, browser extensions have access to all websites and information about the user when the browser window is open.
Therefore malicious programmers can easily track credit and debit card details through their browser extensions if they are installed in a browser.
Information collected across thousands of browsers provide hackers with complete identity and financial information of their target users which they in turn sell on the darkweb.
Browser vendors have struggled to keep user information secure but as most of these leaks are due to human errors, vulnerabilities still exist and are being exploited by hackers.
Therefore it is crucial for users to install only the necessary extensions while ensuring that minimal access permissions are provided to such extensions.
Features and Performance
Extensions like Postman & Lastpass have their own windows that can help you use the extension like an app in itself.
Some extensions can also run in the background of your browser even after the browser is closed like the Google Drive extension that syncs folders on your local hard disk to your online Google Drive account.
Such flexibility has allowed numerous web services like Evernote, Amazon, and others to find effective and minimal functionalities that compliment their respective web services.
For example, the Evernote Web Clipper extension provides all necessary tools to capture and store notes from all across the web to their web service while simultaneously synchronizing data across their web desktop and mobile applications.
This is one of the primary reasons evernote is such a popular app for notes. Similarly simpler extensions like the Dictionary by Google help you lookup the definition of any word immediately by just selecting the word as shown in the example below.
Simple and effective browser extensions not only simplify browsing across the web but also help users gain access to information quickly and in the least amount of effort possible.
However as the extensions themselves are code executed on top of the browsers, the performance of the browser and the system as a whole takes a hit in low end systems.
Notice: If you’re going to make use of browser extensions, it’s highly recommended that you take precaution and use diligent care.