Browser add-ons have grown into platforms within browsers and some add-on developers have created viable business models that make money and attract venture capital. However, incompatible add-on engines that power major browsers limit the innovation potential. There is little chance that this will change anytime soon as IE remains on the proprietary add-on path while Chrome is likely to bring its own add-on system to the table. But the upcoming Add-on-Con conference, the first event to gather developers and marketers of browsers and add-ons, carries some hope that this environment could change down the road.
Browser add-ons are believed to be a key factor that determines your pick of a browser, right after speed and stability. Firefox add-ons are often cited as an important reason for users who are switching to the Mozilla browser. The success of Mozilla add-ons is largely based on the XML user interface language called XUL, which is designed to allow any Mozilla-based product to run Mozilla-based add-ons not just in Firefox but also work with other Mozilla applications, such as Thunderbird. The mobile Firefox version dubbed Fennec will also work with Mozilla-based add-ons, although developers will need to adapt them to address smaller screen sizes.
Firefox also supports the hugely popular Greasemonkey system that enables users to install scripts that modify the behavior of a web page on-the-fly, like adding folders to the Gmail web interface. However, that is just Mozilla. Google Chrome currently does not support Greasemonkey scripts or add-ons at this time, but Google engineer Ojan Vafai recently confirmed that support for the two is underway.
"There's two different kinds of add-ons," he said during a panel discussion at Web 2.0 Expo in New York in mid-September. "The Firefox things extend your browser, so to speak, and then there are user scripts. We intend to do both of those in Google Chrome." He also noted that Google intends to support add-ons so that they will not compromise browser's security and stability. "As many people notice in Firefox add-ons, there are problems with instability." The remark suggests that Chrome might end up with its own add-on system that will not be compatible with Firefox' XUL system.
If Microsoft's IE is any indication, this could be a bad decision. Internet Explorer has been using a proprietary add-on system, which means that developers have to maintain two separate codes to cater to the two browsers. This has resulted in less IE add-ons compared to the add-on base for Mozilla-based products. Opera and Safari do not offer add-on functionality per se - and if we exclude hacks that are of little use to the average user.
There is more hope for scripts thanks to the ubiquitous Greasemonkey engine that is available for the three browsers. Greasemonkey co-founder Aaron Boodman is working on the Google Chrome team on enabling Greasemonkey support in Chrome, with added functionality such as live scripts updating and restricting a script to a particular site. IE and Firefox also support Greasemonkey scripts through the Greasemonkey for IE extension and the Greasemonkey Firefox add-on. There are solutions that provide Greasemonkey support in Safari and Opera as well.
With that in mind, it is clear that incompatibilities between the add-on engines do not benefit the industry. Developers have to dedicate extra time and money to maintain separate codes, users who switch browsers have to replace add-ons while vendors waste resources battling each other with their own add-on engines. The upcoming Add-on-Con event scheduled this coming Thursday provides some hope that there might be change down the road.
A one day, two-track event sponsored by Microsoft and Mozilla and organized by AdaptiveBlue, OneRiot and Sxipper will be held in Mountain View California at the Computer History Museum. It is the first such event to bring three major browser vendors to the table to discuss the future of the web browser platform. As the name suggests, Add-on-Con will focus on the business model and the technology of building and marketing browser add-ons. Mozilla’s VP of Engineering, Mike Shaver, will be giving the closing keynote, and Mark Finkle will also be presenting at the conference. The opening keynote will be moderated by venture capitalist Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Venture Partners who will review the business models of today’s most popular add-on companies.
Add-on start-ups attract investment from top venture firms though most of them have yet to find a sustainable business model. However, at least some of them are successful already, such as Cooliris, which now has 2.5 million active users and an immersive 3D add-on for viewing web images and videos on all major browser platforms, including the iPhone. AdaptiveBlue's Glue add-on turns eyeballs into money by creating a pipe for consumer transactions, Conduit persuaded 140,000 publishers from 180 countries to join its network and OneRiot's add-ons drive substantial search traffic. Most add-ons that actually make money do this through advertising, selling data, or selling services.
Although we do not believe that browser vendors will adopt cross-platform add-on engines overnight, the technical sessions at the conference may ease the pain of add-on development, with topics such as how to write add-ons that work across different browsers, lessons learned from writing add-ons for multiple platforms or how to leverage third-party APIs to create mashup add-ons. Marketing-oriented sessions focus on the IE and Firefox add-on ecosystem and offer a glimpse into the future of the Mozilla Add-ons site.
Source: TG Daily