You've probably noticed that just about any application of any
real significance these days has the capability to be expanded
in some way. Usually these are called "plug-ins", although they
are also called snap-ins (Windows 2000), add-ons, add-ins
(Outlook 2000), ActiveX Controls (Internet Explorer) and filters
(Adobe Photoshop, as well as any number of other descriptive
The concept is simple, and the benefits are tremendous. Create
an "engine" with basic functionality and allow for expansion by
third-parties in a standard and organized way. Thus, for
example, even though Adobe Photoshop performs an incredibly
number of functions all on it's own, the authors felt it was
necessary to allow others to contribute their skills. They did
this by providing plug-ins and filters.
This also, not entirely coincidentally, got around the concept
of "open source" which has been debated all over the internet
for years. Pure open source is code which can be downloaded and
modified by anyone - Unix is a good example of this. At the
other extreme is virtually all of Microsoft's products - the
sources are not made available to anyone except under specific
and [legally] controlled circumstances. Plug-ins get around this
argument by allowing the product to be expanded and it's
behavior changed without releasing the source code to the
The concept of plug-ins actually came into reality back in 1995.
The Netscape browser developers had a problem - there were few,
if any, accepted graphics and multimedia (videos, sound and
such) standards available on the web, yet the browser had to be
capable of displaying graphics and multimedia. The developers
did not want to restrict their browser to just a few standards
(which may or may not have become accepted) and they certainly
did not want to release a new browser every time a new
multimedia format was created.
Thus plug-ins were born. This solved the problem very well.
There was now no need to restrict formats or modify and
distribute a new browser. All that needed to be done was create
a plug in which handled the format. And best of all (for
Netscape) this plug-in was generally created by some other
There were problems with the plug-in concept, however.
- Back in the days of slow modems, it could take a very long
time to download a plug-in
- Plug-ins could crash the operating system or cause it to
- If a visitor chose not to install a plug-in, then the
multimedia object would not display.
- Malicious designers could conceivably introduce security risks
through the use of plug-ins.
Soon afterwards Microsoft got on the bandwagon with it's own
version of plug-ins for Internet Explorer. They called their
version ActiveX and made them a little more automatic (by adding
some custom code to the operating system). Ask anyone at
Microsoft (especially at the training classes) and you be told
that the future is ActiveX. However, these controls have exactly
the same problem as plug-ins with a terrible security model to
boot (any security model which requires an end-user to make a
decision as to whether or not unknown code is trustworthy is
certain to fail).
Okay, how does this all relate to graphics? Well, plug-ins and
ActiveX controls are the way you can expand the functions of
your browser to include new and occasionally wonderful things.
- Macromedia flash (quickly becoming one of the most popular
formats) - Adobe Acrobat Reader (now the standard for web
document publication) - Quicktime (a video format) - Shockwave
(another popular plug-in - Real Player (a very compressed video
and audio format)
There are hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of other plug-ins and
ActiveX controls available for your browser.
Web Site Design Notes
Okay, this is all fine and dandy, but do you really need or want
plug-ins on your web site? Well, that's up to you. Some of the
reasons for including plug-ins are:
- You can make your web site more interesting and different.
- Plug-ins can be fun to use
- You can add things to your web site that cannot otherwise be
Why wouldn't you want to include plug-ins?
- They tend to scare away visitors who don't know what they are
- Your pages become unattractive or non-functional if your
visitors do not choose to download and install the plug-in
- If the provider of the plug-in ceases business operations,
then you may be stuck with a website that you cannot maintain or
- Plug-ins are often frowned upon because they add a security
risk to your visitors systems, they require long downloads (and
sometimes reboots for installation), and they can make systems
- Your site sometimes inherits the reputation of the plug-in.
For example, many people consider Comet Cursors to be spyware
and very intrusive (as well as obnoxious and unnecessary) and
will not visit your site if you've got those on your pages.
Thus, you site may be considered "bad" even though it might be
In generally, Flash, Shockwave, Acrobat, and Real player are
pretty safe bets. If you want to improve your site with
plug-ins, these will do well.
Here's the strange thing about plug-ins (as well as ActiveX
controls) - they require you (the surfer) to make a decision: do
you or don't you trust the source of this software?
Personally, I have learned through long and hard experience a
golden rule of owning or using a personal computer:
The less you install on your computer system, the more stable
your computer will be.
You see, plug-ins, especially ActiveX Controls, tend to install
things into your system - things over which you have no control.
Worse yet, plug-ins need to be updated - which means a formerly
safe plug-in may become unsafe due to sloppy coding practices or
My advice is very simple. I have installed the major plug-ins:
Acrobat, Flash, Shockwave and Real Player. These are made by
large companies and have established track records for safety
and value. There are a few other plug-ins which are reasonably
safe: Crescendo comes to mind. I would use extreme caution when
installing other plug-ins and especially ActiveX controls. If
you don't know, and I mean know without a shadow of a doubt,
that the thing is safe, then don't install it. If you do decide
to install something, make sure you've got a good backup of your
system and data.
About the author:
Richard Lowe Jr. is the webmaster of Internet Tips And Secrets.
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