Firefox Browser Extensions

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2821, 2010-05-21, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 8-11) and their website.

There is no question that people are spending more time on the Web — using it for near-instant business communication; keeping in touch with friends all over the world and making new ones; publishing articles, blog posts, and even entire books without having to win the approval of traditional publishing firms; building online businesses; watching videos instead of television shows; watching streamed movies instead of DVDs from a video store; making long-distance "phone" calls over the Internet, from one computer to another, for free; ordering groceries and pizza for home delivery. At this rate, we may never need to leave the home again!

All of these activities — aside from shuffling to the door to accept the pizza — are done in a Web browser, which everyone should know is a computer program that displays Web pages. Sadly, not everyone using the Internet knows what a browser is. During 2009, some Google employees shot a video in Times Square, New York, asking passersby such questions as "What is a browser?" To anyone involved in technical support for the general public, it should come as no surprise that most people could not answer that question. In fact, fewer than eight percent could accurately answer it. One guy came close, stating that it is the "big E", by which of course he meant the "e" icon that Windows users find on their desktop for starting Internet Explorer.

Perhaps the primary reason that Internet Explorer (IE) had dominated the browser market for so many years, is that it has been baked into every version of Windows since 95. Critics of IE might quip that that is the only reason, given the endless security problems, the violation of generally accepted Web standards, the slow pace of security fixes, the years of no improvement to IE 6, and innumerable other sources of frustration.

Just Browsing, Thanks

Fortunately, during most of the history of the Web, its users have had at least one alternative to which they could turn — initially Mosaic, then Netscape, and now a host of outstanding browsers: Apple's Safari, Google Chrome, Opera, and Mozilla's Firefox. All of these run on Windows and Mac OS X. For lovers of Linux, these four browsers are available except Safari — although Konqueror can be thought of as the Linux equivalent, since they share the same rendering engine.

Given the importance of the Internet for the majority of computer users, one could argue that it is well worth your time finding the browser that best meets your needs. Of all the browsers mentioned so far, only Internet Explorer does not have current versions for Mac OS X. So if that is your operating system of choice, then you can opt for any of them but IE — no great loss there. Among those, all are competing with one another for first place in the latest speed tests — not just for rendering Web pages, but also how fast each browser can execute JavaScript code. They are performing so well nowadays that, for the average user, there is probably no clear-cut winner. So what additional criteria can one use to try to pick the optimal browser for your situation?

In terms of functionality, those four browsers offer all of the key features that one would expect from a top-notch application. But for some of them, that functionality can be enhanced by using third-party code that plugs into the browser, giving it features unavailable from the original vendor. Some people refer to these supplementary software packages as "add-ons" or "plug-ins", but the most commonly used term is "extensions", probably because they extend the functionality of the browser. Firefox was the pioneer in this area, building upon the solid foundation of a terrific feature list. In this article, we will look at Firefox extensions in general, and then focus on some of the most useful extensions available — at least, in the opinion of this writer.

Extending Your Browser

In a general sense, extensions can be thought of as complementary additions to Firefox, designed and developed by independent programmers and software vendors, to further improve the base Firefox features — adding the functionality that those developers are looking for, and in most cases what countless other users will find handy. Each extension is packaged as a single file, with names ending in ".xpi". The technologies needed to create these extensions, are primarily JavaScript and XUL (pronounced "zool"), but they also leverage Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and Extensible Markup Language (XML). The ".xpi" file suffix (I'm avoiding the term "extension" for obvious reasons) may be unfamiliar to you, and there is no application natively associated with this file type in Windows Explorer. Nonetheless, these files are actually structured as Zip archive files, which should be familiar to most Windows users.

As you might expect, after years of developers dreaming up new features to add to Firefox, there are thousands of extensions currently available that can enhance your browser, so you can: change the styling of the current Web page; block ads and Flash videos; modify the Firefox menus; edit browser cookies; find dictionary and Wikipedia entries for words; check for viruses and spoofed sites; download and upload files using FTP; manage browser tabs; share BitTorrents; manage Gmail accounts; communicate using VoIP, SMS, and instant messaging; control your multimedia player without leaving the browser; read RSS news feeds; and add entries to your blog without having to navigate to the site. In fact, there is even an extension that Web designers and developers can use to switch the rendering engine to Internet Explorer, which is quite handy for quickly checking to see what ways that IE is hosing the Web page they are crafting.

Amazingly, this list merely scratches the surface. There are thousands of others available on the Firefox Add-ons page, which groups them into seventeen different categories: Alerts & Updates; Appearance; Bookmarks; Download Management; Feeds, News & Blogging; Language Support; Photos, Music & Videos; Privacy & Security; Social & Communication; Tabs; Toolbars; Web Development; Other; Collections; Personas; Dictionaries & Language Packs; Search Tools; and Themes.

The procedure that you follow to install an extension depends on whether your copy of Firefox is configured to automatically load extensions from external sources. If your Firefox instance is set to do so, then to begin using any one of the extensions, simply go to its main page using Firefox, click the green "Add to Firefox" button, and in the dialog box that pops up, click the "Install Now" button. It will give you a few seconds to cancel (just in case you clicked the install button accidentally), and then it will add it to the list of extensions that will be installed the next time that you start Firefox. On the other hand, if you have changed the browser settings so that loading code directly from a page is disallowed, then to install an extension, right-click on its installation link, save the .xpi file to your hard disk, choose File > Open in Firefox to open the file, and then continue as though you had clicked on the install link on the extension's homepage.

Extensions That Go the Extra Mile

Anyone who has been using Firefox extensions for long, probably has many that she prefers. Be wary though that you don't fall in love with a huge list of them, because the more that you have running in Firefox, the slower it will perform. Here are some of my favorites: Adblock Plus is a more capable and flexible blocker of Web ads than Firefox's built-in image blocker, and replaces the venerable AdBlock. You can create your own list of patterns to match ad file paths, or, even faster, use an excellent list that has already been created: EasyList.

Why bother firing up the lame Windows calculator applet, when you can enjoy a far more capable calculator right in your browser? The aptly named Calculator extension certainly comes in handy, and, once it has been installed on your system, can be instantly invoked using the key combination Alt + C. In addition to the basic mathematical operations, it supports trigonometric functions, square roots, exponentials, and factorials.

If you are in the habit of regularly saving the addresses of promising websites that you run across, then you will probably be quite happy to discover Copy URL+. It has an entry in the context menu (accessed by right-clicking within the Firefox page area) that copies the page title and URL of the current Web page into your Windows system clipboard. The more recent versions of Firefox do not support the latest official version of this extension (namely, 1.3.2). As a result, in order to use Copy URL+, you would need to disallow Firefox from verifying the compatibility of your add-ons. To do so, go to the address "about:config" within Firefox, and add two new entries: extensions.checkCompatibility = false, and extensions.checkUpdateSecurity = false.

In the list of features above, one of them pertains to managing the playback of MP3 files directly within the browser. This can be accomplished using FoxyTunes. Upon installation, it adds a small toolbar to the bottom right-hand corner of the Firefox window, containing controls that allow you to play, pause, stop, fast-forward, and reverse the song currently queued up in whichever audio player program you have selected within the FoxyTunes settings. At this time, FoxyTunes supports over two dozen audio players, including the ever-popular iTunes.

Better security and compliance with Web standards, are just two of the many reasons for abandoning Internet Explorer, in case you are still using it by choice, or because you never considered the alternatives. The thousands of extensions available for Firefox — as well as the many extensions available for Chrome, Opera, and Safari — should be more than enough to prompt you to switch to a better browser, and make the most of your time on the Web.

Copyright © 2010 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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