Thoughts on technology and social web

May 14, 2009

Browser extensions as a service

Filed under: Browser SOA — Ravikant Cherukuri @ 12:26 am

I hate browser extensions. If you do too and you don’t need any more reasons to convince you they are evil, move on to the second part of my post.

PART I : EXTENSIONS ARE EVIL

I have been using Extensions/Add-ons for a long time to customize IE and Firefox and get more out of my browser. There are many good extensions out there that provide a lot of great functionality. But there are also a lot of malicious ones that caused havoc, the result being that extensions are viewed as security holes and people are wary of them. Add to that the fact that the IE extension programming model is primitive and gives every extension that you install the keys to the kingdom. Extension are a little better on firefox but either way they have a lot of downsides.

  • [IE] No sandbox in which the extensions work. They can pretty much do as they please. Brings down the trust level. Much better in Firefox.
  • [IE] Based on ActiveX. Yuck!. Again much better in Firefox with XUL and a JavaScript based programming model.
  • [IE]Most browser crashes are induced by extensions. Once they crash, the user disables them and that’s the end of story.Again much better in Firefox. Much harder to crash Firefox from a JavaScript based extension.
  • Makes the browser slow even when you are not using the extension. Applies to all browsers.
  • Extension developers have to write multiple versions of their extension for each browser.
  • Sucks to be in the old world of installed applications. Firefox again has an auto-update feature that can keep your extension up to date with new features. But still its not as good as being a service. IE leaves it to the extension writer.
  • Extensions don’t roam. You will have to install the extensions you need to all of your machines.
  • Extensions will not work on your mobile devices. Or even if your extension developer supports your mobile device, you will have to install each on your mobile phone.

Ok with so many headaches and low trust, people end up not installing (m)any extensions. Lets ignore the ones that come factory-installed for the moment. That’s a rant for another post. And remember its easy to disable extensions and toolbars even in IE from 7.0 onwards. So, pre-installing only elevates you to a spammer status.

PART II : SERVICE ORIENTED EXTENSION MODEL

Many of the same problems have been solved when desktop installed applications transitioned to web based services. If browser extensions can be provided as a service, it will be more acceptable to the end user and extensible for the extension (service) developer. Trust, distribution, ease of use, customization, roaming, discovery etc are problems that have been solved for the web.

Greasemonkey brought a new approach to extending the browser. Install one extension and add scripts that will enhance different sites. It has the potential of customizing different sites to your liking and mashing a few of them to see what you want, the way you want it. But I always felt that the experience Greasemonkey gave you is disjoint. There all these cool script that will work if you know that they exist and how to use them. But there is no common thread that will bring all these experiences together.

Bookmarklets are generally used to write one click helpers that extract data from the current page and process it in some way. For example,

    • Press This : take text from the current page and post it to your blog.
    • Readability : format the current page for readability (really good)
    • Favelet suite : reverse engineer a web site using the bookmarklet tools

With a combination of JavaScript injection, HTML 5 features like DOM Storage, cross document messaging and bookmarklets, it is possible to implement “extension as a service”. What does this mean?

  • Needs no installation when used as a bookmarklet
  • Can download extension applets on demand and based on context
  • Extension code hosted as a service
  • User specific extension data stored on the service
  • Can easily roam with the user
  • Same functionality for all browsers with one code base

More on the architecture of this service in a later post.

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