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How Plug-Ins Work, and Where to Get Them


Woman with laptop on couch
Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images
August, 2013

Ques: What Are Internet Plug-ins?

Ans: While a plain web browser allows you to view static HTML pages, 'plug-ins' are optional software additions that enhance and/or add functionality to a web browser. This means that beyond reading a basic web page, plug-ins let you watch movies and animation, hear sound and music, read special Adobe documents, play online games, do 3-D interaction, and use your web browser like a type of interactive software package. In truth, it is crucial to install plug-ins if you want to participate in modern online culture.

What plug-ins I should have?

Although new plug-in software is released every week, there are 12 key plug-ins and add-on software that will serve you 99% of the time:

  1. Adobe Acrobat Reader (for .pdf files)
  2. Java Virtual Machine (JVM to run Java applets)
  3. Microsoft Silverlight (to run rich media, databases, and interactive web pages)
  4. Adobe Flash Player (to run .swf animation movies and YouTube videos)
  5. Adobe Shockwave Player (to run heavy-duty .swf movies)
  6. Real Audio Player (to listen to .ram files)
  7. Apple Quicktime (to see 3d Virtual Reality schematics)
  8. Windows Media Player (to run a variety of movies and music formats)
  9. WinAmp (to play downloaded .mp3 and .wav files, and display artist information)
  10. Antivirus software: because getting infected will ruin anyone's day online.
  11. Optional browser toolbars, like Google toolbar, Yahoo toolbar, or StumleUpon toolbar
  12. WinZip (to compress/decompress downloaded files): although technically not a plug-in, WinZip software works as a silent partner to help you download web files)
What do these plug-ins do for me?

Anytime you visit a web page that includes more than simple HTML content, you are likely to need at least one plug-in.

For example, on a daily basis, Flash Player is perhaps the most popular plug-in. 75% of the animated advertisements you see online and 100% of YouTube movies are Flash .swf "movies" (Shockwave format). Here are some Flash movie examples by XDude.

As a competitor to Flash, Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in provides similar animation power, but Silverlight goes even further than Flash. Silverlight also acts as a type of portable rich media and database interface so that users can access powerful software-like features through their web pages. Examples include: online banking, participating in fantasy sports leagues, online gaming and poker, viewing live sports, ordering airline tickets, booking a vacation, and more. MeWorks is a splendid example of Silverlight in action (you may need to install Silverlight from here).

After Flash and Silverlight, the most common plug-in need is for Adobe Acrobat Reader .pdf (Portable Document Format) viewing. Most government forms, online application forms, and a multitude of other documents use .pdf format on the Web.

The fourth most common plug-in would be a movie/audio player to run .mov, .mp3, .wav, .au, and .avi files. Windows Media Player is perhaps the most popular for this purpose, but you can use a multitude of other movie/audio choices.

Another common enhancement to get is WinZip, which allows you to download large files in "compressed" (shrunken file size) .zip format, and then expand the compressed files for full use on your computer. This is the smartest tool for sending either large files, or batches of many smaller files. Technically, WinZip is not a "plug-in", but it certainly is recommended as a web browsing partner tool.

Depending on your browser habits, the likely fifth-most-common plug-in need would be for Java Virtual Machine (JVM). The JVM allows you to run online games and online program "applets" that are written in the Java programming language. Here are some sample Java game applets.

Next: How do I find these internet plug-ins?

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