It seems like every few weeks one of the many IT newsletters and Web sites I read publishes an article about Firefox extensions. For instance, a few days ago, I read Jack Wallen’s “10 Firefox extensions you can’t live without.” Heck, I even wrote an article about Firefox extensions a few years back for TechRepublic.

But when was the last time you saw the same type of article about Internet Explorer plug-ins? I can understand why there aren’t these types of articles about Safari and Opera because their market share is pretty low, but Internet Explorer has a huge user base. I have a few theories about why there isn’t much coverage about IE plug-ins.

My first theory is that writing plug-ins for IE is more difficult than writing plug-ins for Firefox. I have not actually tried to write a plug-in for either browser, so I really cannot say if this is the cause of the disparity. But if IE is significantly harder to write plug-ins for, then the number and overall quality of IE extensions would definitely be lower.

Another theory I have is that no one cares to extend IE. This could be caused by any number of factors, but I would bet that a lack of passion is part of it. Let’s face it — you need to be committed to Firefox to use it; after all, it involves you actively downloading the setup kit, installing it, and so on. IE simply has apathy as a prerequisite; all you need to do is not care what browser you use (or not know of browser alternatives), and you are an IE user. The end result is that Firefox users are much more likely to be passionate about their browser of choice, and therefore more likely to extend it.

A related idea is that Firefox users are much more into tweaking their systems than IE users. As a result, there is a ready market for Firefox extensions, while IE extensions might simply flounder. Likewise, it is possible that no one gets much response from an article about IE extensions, while a similar Firefox article might receive good feedback, so the incentive to write about IE plug-ins is less.

It could also be possible that IE is considered “good enough” to not need many extensions. I know… that sounds completely crazy. But frankly, the vast majority of users I know (even those with a lot of extensions installed) rarely seem to actually use the extensions outside of search toolbar widgets. Looking over the “extensions I love” articles I’ve read, I just can’t see many of the extensions being useful more than once or twice a month for the average person; many of the extensions address non-problems. I can see why some people might be annoyed by a missing feature, decide to write a solution, and post it on the Internet, but I don’t see that many people being motivated to use the extension. (By the way, the “extensions I love” articles are almost always well written, interesting, and expose me to new things, and I am in no way disparaging these articles or their authors.)

Ten years ago or so the “in” thing for developers was to allow users to “skin” (or apply “themes”) to their applications. Everyone rushed to add this functionality to software, code widget vendors rushed to create widgets that made it easier to write applications that could be skinned, and so on. It was ridiculous. A few major applications had a devoted following of skinners (Winamp comes to mind), but the vast majority of skinnable apps never got skinned. Even though Winamp was a popular target for skinning, Windows Media Player (which is also skinnable) did not get nearly as many skins for it, even though its market share was high. Windows Media Player even had a pretty easy skinning system, more or less.

Likewise, we can draw a parallel between extensions for Eclipse and extensions for Visual Studio. Every time I look into Eclipse, there seems to be a healthy ecosystem of free and open source extensions to it. Visual Studio has extensions available, but the majority of them that I see are commercial items. The ecosystem of quality free and open source extensions just is not there.

I can keep drawing parallels between products that get extended a lot, and the Microsoft equivalent which does not, despite having support for extensions. I can come up with theories as to why this is all day long, but I’d love to hear what TechRepublic members think might be the cause of this situation.


Disclosure of Justin’s industry affiliations: Justin James has a working arrangement with Microsoft to write an article for MSDN Magazine. He also has a contract with Spiceworks to write product buying guides.


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