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Plug-ins, plug-ins everywhere! Web publishers and users must cope with a dizzying array of choices.

The fast-growing area of Web development currently seems to be focusing on plug-ins. There are now over 250 plug-ins shipping (over 150 for Netscape and over 100 for ActiveX controls, Internet Explorer's version of plug-ins). Is more better? With so many virtual goodies that we can now add to our Web sites, is it time to test the waters, take the plunge, or stay on terra firma? The answer is, it depends.

The root cause for this explosion of plug-ins is rather simple. All we have to do is look at t he browser war for the answer. Just as we have the battle of the browsers, we will soon have the battle of the plug-ins. Ultimately it could come down to which plug-in will eventually be purchased and included with a browser as a default option. Both Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator do this to a limited extent already, but their selections have yet to reach the status of plug-ins like RealAudio or Macromedia.

More is not necessarily better. Few people have the time to find, install, test, and evaluate a large collection of plug-ins. Too many plug-ins can lead to browser bloat because the plug-in applications take over a respectable share of memory real estate. And, even if a product looks good, how is it playing in the great Web "out there"? Is it being adapted by others, or is it an orphan?

In later columns I will discuss developments in specific categories of plug-ins. Today I will provide an overview of how they function, what they can do, and some issues to consider when selecting a plug-in for a Web site.

The best place to find plug-ins written for Netscape is at the Netscape plug-in page ( prod/mirror/index.html). Microsoft maintains a similar collection of ActiveX controls at vex/gallery. Browserwatch (http://browser maintains a collection of both and includes somewhat less "hyped" views on the virtues of specific products.

Merely Cool or Really Tools?

Plug-ins and ActiveX controls essentially do the same thing -- they add an application to a browser. Frequently these are called viewers or players. Usually these application allow a user to view or hear specific content created by the server version of the software. For example, after installation the browser will know how to active a specific software application (i.e., RealAudio) when it sees a file extension embedded in an HTML page (i.e., .ra). The publisher must use the server version of RealAudio to create the content. In the case of RealAudio, a publisher needs one of the three different server applications (EasyStart, Intranet System, or Professional Server) produced by Progressive Networks.

Plug-ins have traditionally been known for their multimedia functionally. This can range a relatively simple plug-in, such PNG Live by Siegel & Gale, which displays PNG (portable network graphics). PNG is a format recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium to replace .gif images, which are in a proprietary format. A PNG viewer would allow a Web publisher to mount PNG images on a Web site before the format is ultimately bundled into the browsers. Similar types of plug-ins allow the viewing of other materials, such as CAD (Computer Aided Design), Acrobat, PowerPoint, Postscript, and ScreenCam.

Other multimedia plug-ins have become increasingly sophisticated. Sound and video are particularly popular (and bandwidth consuming) add-ons to a Web site. There are many animation plug-ins available, ranging from the sophisticated Macromedia Shockware suite to the cute upstarts, such as Animaflex (which is really more toy than tool). The most sophisticated plug-ins support Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) and related 3-D applications. This topic will be the subject of my November column.

The other broad category of plug-ins is called either "productivity" or "utilities." This category includes telephony, the ability to make a browser into a telephone. Frankly, I already have a perfectly wonderful device called a telephone and I don't need my computer to duplicate that function. However, other utilities, such as being able to view and manage calendars, can be useful addition to an intranet. Other examples include remote control of computers and spelling checkers.

Should You Get Plugged In?

Conventional wisdom when it comes to designing Web pages has been K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid). However, Web publisher deal with a very different environment than those with intranets. Internet publishers must deal with 28.8 dial-ins, multi-platform user bases including WebTV, varying degrees of computer use sophistication, and little if any technical support.

Conversely, intranet publishers have a controlled environment. They know their machines, the network, and their users. Plug-in standards and implementation are more easily managed.

The 47 million people who have visited the NASA Mars Pathfinder site demonstrate that a site can be a large draw with a relatively straightforward presentation. However, corporations today are increasingly looking to their Web sites as sales and marketing tools and are frequently seeking more "jazzy" presentations.

Simplicity is still a preferable model for developing publishing. It is easy to be seduced by the gee-whiz trick "accessories." But is animating the corporate logo or recording some words of wisdom from the president really going to improve on the delivery of content to an Internet visitor?

Probably not, and a plug-in can be a deterrent. If a person has to download and install a plug-in in order to view your site, he or she may decide it is not worth the bother. Even on my machine in the office, which is a zippy 200mx with a speedy Web connection, I have occasionally not wanted to download yet another plug-in, shut down Netscape, run the antiviral software, install the application, restart Netscape, and go back to the site. (Yes, I know this is easier with Internet Explorer!)

I become even more resistant at home when I have to dial in at 28.8. We also have to remember that some people find the process of downloading and installing software somewhat terrorizing. And given that many users are not using an up-to-date anti-viral software program, it may be just as well that they don't download.

A Quick list

Platform base is an important consideration for plug-in selection. More mature software companies with deeper financial pockets to draw from provide codes for most operating system platforms. Frequently the newer entries into the market-place are limited to Windows 95 and Windows NT. So the Windows 3.1 or Macintosh user is out of luck. In many of these applications, the HTML can be viewed, but a user cannot see or hear or do what the plug-in provides. Some sites will refuse to let the user even view a page at a site if it determines you don't have the correct plug-in.

At least for now the plug-ins are free. The cost recovery is done at the creator level. The newer entries may be less expensive and may actually be better products, but they are likely to have less technical support and a more problematic future. Plug-ins are relatively inexpensive to produce and the promotion of their use is supported by the browsers, so many of these companies are new upstarts.

This is an issue for publishers because even reluctant users will eventually figure out how to get a particular plug-in if the need for it repeatedly appears on their desktops -- even if it means asking the resident teenager to fetch and install it. Intranet publishers have an easier job with this because whatever standard is accepted on the internal network, implementing the plug-in on the clients is a relatively straightforward matter.

Internet publishers have a more difficult situation. If users come upon a plug-in they have never encountered before, they may actually be resistant to adding it. How many plug-ins do users really want to add to their browsers? For that matter, how many do you or I want? Do I really want four different plug-ins to hear audio, two for video, six for multimedia, and how many more for how much else? Do you?

Stay plugged into this column for future developments.
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Peek, Robin
Publication:Information Today
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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