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What is a browser extension?

browser extension icon

Browsers have evolved into much more than simple web navigators. Much of that evolution has been the introduction of ‘extensions’. They let you control how websites load and behave, and they can add extra features to your browser.

A Brief History of Browser Extensions

Browser extensions go all the way back to 1

999 with the fourth version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. However, it wasn’t until much later that extensions became the powerful tools they are today.

The first extensions in Internet Explorer were called ‘Explorer bars’. They were just specialized toolbars that could be added to the interface. For example, you can have an Explorer bar showing a stock ticker.

Mozilla’s Firefox browser was next to support extensions in 2004, followed by Opera in 2009, and finally, in 2010, by Google Chrome and Safari. Microsoft’s Edge browser also supports extensions, of course.

Similar to how third-party developers and the App Store exploded the popularity of apps on the iPhone, when developers were able to create extensions and distribute them in first-party web stores, they became very popular.

What Can Extensions Do?

Microsoft Edge Extensions

The scope of what a browser extension can do depends on the browser. In the beginning, extensions had access to many browsers’ inner workings, but as security has tightened, so have the capabilities of extensions.

You may have heard the phrase “There’s an app for that,” and it’s similar for browser extensions. There are tons of things you can do with extensions. You can change the way tabs work, integrate your favorite note-taking service, receive Gmail notifications, check your grammar, and even play games.

There are two common types of extensions. Most extend the functionality of the browser itself or integrate an existing service with the browser.

For the first category, you’ll find things like Picture-in-Picture for all video players, volume control for each tab, dark mode for websites that don’t have one, split-screen tabs, and plenty of aesthetic tweaks.

The second category includes things like a Gmail notification checker, a “Save to Google Drive” button, an Evernote web clipper, a Todoist menu in the toolbar, coupons for online stores, and much more.

The best way to really see what extensions can do is to explore the extension store for your favorite browser.

Are extensions safe to use?

As useful as browser extensions can be, they bring security and privacy concerns. This has to do with the permissions they get when you install them. For example, Google Chrome extensions can almost all “read and modify all of your data on the websites you visit.” Yikes.

RELATED: Why do Chrome extensions need “all your data on the websites you visit”?

In addition, extensions are running in your browser all the time. They are performed when you check Facebook, when you transfer money from your bank’s website, and when you enter your credit card information on Amazon.

A malicious extension can easily register your keystrokes to steal passwords and personal information. Your search traffic may be secretly diverted to another place or you may be selling your browsing data on the Internet to advertisers. The list is endless.

Of course, this doesn’t happen with most extensions, and the companies that maintain web stores for them tackle malicious behavior. But it does happen and people need to be aware that extensions are not harmless.

One particularly dangerous aspect of extensions is how they can be automatically updated. This means that a popular extension can be hijacked and updated on your device and start collecting data without you ever knowing it.

So are extensions safe to use? There is no easy answer. In general, you should be safe downloading well-rated extensions from companies you trust. But it is best to use as few extensions as possible. Sure, they can be useful and fun, but you shouldn’t just download them. Only use what you need.

RELATED: Did you know browser extensions look at your bank account?

Install browser extensions

With all that in mind, let’s talk about installing extensions. It’s just a matter of visiting the web store for your favorite browser. We have guides for Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox and Safari.

Google Chrome

The process begins by going to the Chrome Web Store. You can search by name or browse by category. Once you find an extension, click the “Add to Chrome” button.

RELATED: Install and manage extensions in Chrome

Microsoft Edge

Microsoft Edge extensions can be downloaded from the Microsoft Store and the Chrome Web Store. It’s just a matter of finding an extension and clicking the “Get” button.

RELATED: Install and use extensions in the new Microsoft Edge

RELATED: How to install Google Chrome extensions in Microsoft Edge

Mozilla Firefox

Firefox uses the term “Add-ons” a lot when referring to extensions. You can search, browse and install Firefox extensions from the Mozilla add-on page.

RELATED: How to install extensions (add-ons) in Mozilla Firefox

Apple Safari

Safari extensions can be downloaded from the Mac App Store. You can search by name or browse different categories on the “Safari Extensions” pages. Just click the “Install” button when you find one you like.

RELATED: How to Install Safari Extensions on Mac

Think of extensions as “mini-apps” that can add functionality and integrate your favorite services with your browser. Do you absolutely need extensions to use a web browser? Not at all. Can they improve your experience? Absolutely. Just don’t get carried away.

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