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Firefox without plugins? You’re doing it wrong (updated 26 May 2009)

A particular passion of mine, that I have rather neglected since my first post, is the advocacy of open source software where possible, particularly for non-specialist work-related tasks, such as web browsing and word processing. For my PhD, I write all my documents using OpenOffice (and occasionally LaTeX), and save them using open formats. Of course, I don’t stubbornly neglect proprietary formats completely, mainly due to necessity. For example, to give a slide presentation, I may need to export my slideshow to a Microsoft Powerpoint or Adobe PDF, unless I’m fortunate enough to be able to plug my own laptop into the projector system (which can be a rather cumbersome process) or the host’s computer has OpenOffice installed on it.

EDIT – This article has been updated (26 May 2009).

Many people save their work exclusively to proprietary formats, often taking them for granted, for no other reason than because they are the de facto standard. I happen to be rather uncomfortable with doing this, because although I still own the copyright to the work I produce, I don’t have any rights concerning the format in which it is saved. There is no guarantee that the technology won’t become obsolete as Microsoft’s or Adobe’s (or any other closed-source software company’s) products and formatting standards change from version to version. Of course, there is no guarantee that formats won’t become obsolete as well, but the crucial difference is that if and when they do, the author of a document saved in an open format has the right to get it back. Microsoft, for example, is a private company, and as such is not immune to going belly-up, and if that were to happen, its proprietary formats would go with it (I don’t foresee it happening any time soon, mind you). Issues with computer users not realising the extent of the rights they have forfeited have already surfaced with regards to DRM in music and audiobooks. The risk of a similar issue surfacing with respect to files that contain my own personal hard graft is not one I am willing to take. Especially when the insurance policy that safeguards against that possibility is free.

However, one area of software where open source software is gaining widespread acceptance is in Web browsing. My university provides Firefox on its service. People have heard of Firefox. In my experience, it isn’t met with the same blank “wha…?” that I get whenever I say I use OpenOffice. However, the aspect of Firefox that excites me the most, and what I want to talk about today, is one that is frequently overlooked – plug-ins. In this post, I hope to encourage those of you who have never heard of Firefox to try it, those of you who use Firefox but have never used any plug-ins to try those, and those of you whose Firefox browser is spruced up  with an utterly indispensible plug-in that I haven’t mentioned here to let me know about it and say why no web browser should be without it.

Before I start, I should say that you can have too many plug-ins. They’re not all useful, and can get in each others way and slow down your system if you have hundreds all running at once. There is also a possibility that some plug-ins are malevolent, though I am yet to encounter one personally. I use a total of twelve, and for each one that I use, I am going to describe what it does and why I use it. Sorry, science fans, there’s no science here today, just personal opinion, but if I introduce at least one reader to something they’d never previously realised existed, then I’ll have done my job for today.

Here they are, then, roughly (very roughly) in order of “indispensability”:

1. Ad-block Plus

What does it do? It blocks adverts from webpages.

How does one use it? After installing the plug-in and restarting Firefox, you “subscribe” to a list of known advertising servers. After that, whenever you open a webpage, for every flash animation on the page, Firefox checks it against the list. If it’s on the list, it doesn’t get displayed. Adverts that do slip through the net can be blocked manually using an unobtrusive “Block” button which appears just above the animation. You can then choose to send the fact that you’ve blocked it back to the server so that the list to which you subscribe can be updated and maintained.

Why do I use it? Adverts on webpages annoy me. Some more than others. I find them distracting, and a nuisance. Many use Adobe Flash, which is something of a drain on system resources, especially if the advert has been put together by a graphic designer using a state-of-the-art graphics computer with no consideration for how much computer power it hogs on ordinary computer systems. Some are also downright offensive. I fully respect the rights of people to place adverts on their website if they so choose, but I use this plug-in to enable me to exercise my right not to take any notice of them.

2. Zotero

What does it do? It’s a fully-fledged citation manager that works directly in your web browser. It is capable of being integrated with Microsoft Word and OpenOffice.

How does one use it? By golly, it’s good. When you visit a webpage from a journal or academic search engine with a citation for an academic paper, a little icon appears in the address bar. Click on the icon, and all the information about the article, such as title, author(s), publication date, the journal it was in, and so on, are all saved in a database which you can look at inside Firefox. What’s more, you can use this database to automatically make citations and bibliographies in a word processor such as OpenOffice or Microsoft Word.

Why do I use it? Where do I begin? It’s phenomenal. This is probably my favourite plugin of all, in terms of the sheer depth of its capabilities (though since this list is ranked on “indispensability”, if I could only have one plug-in, I’d rather have all web-adverts blocked than a citation manager). Retail citation manager software is notoriously expensive, and arguably not as well integrated with the web as Zotero, though I must confess I haven’t used any commercial reference manager software for a while, so there may be something I’m missing. I do a vast amount of my literature searching online, and to be able to have a reference manager sitting directly in the same place as where I search for literature is incredibly useful. Currently in development is Zotero Sync, which allows you to use your Zotero database across different computers. I use a beta version of Zotero Sync, and it is very good indeed.

Zotero is developed at the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University in Virginia, USA, as an academic research project, using funds from research foundations. It is written by academics, for academics, with the same philosophy of sharing knowledge that underpins academic research. Thomson Reuters, who own the rights to Endnote, a commercially developed rival, have invoked their legal muscle, claiming that George Mason University broke the terms of their Endnote license by reverse engineering the Endnote citation styling format. An analysis of the lawsuit can be found here. The case shows remarkable similarities to the Ben Goldacre / LBC situation.

3. Tab Mix Plus

What does it do? It gives extra functions to the “tabs” in your browser. A lot of them.

How does one use it? Given that I’ve used it for so long, it’s rather tricky for me to remember exactly what functions it actually adds, because I’m just used to having them. For example, a progress bar appears in each tab, showing how much of a page has loaded. New tabs open with red text in the tab until you view them, so you can keep track of which ones you haven’t looked at yet. Tabs can be duplicated, sent to new windows, moved from window to window and so on, which I think you could do without this plug-in, but with one very important difference: the browser history is copied or moved as well. This means that you can still use your “back” button after changing the arrangement of your windows and tabs.

Why do I use it? Originally, I installed it because I wanted to keep my browser history whenever I duplicated a tab or a window. Now I keep using it because of that and also because of the progress bar and colour-coding of tabs which helps me to keep track.

4. DownThemAll!

What does it do? It’s a download manager that enables you to download a large number of files without having to click on each one individually. It then queues them up and downloads them a few at a time, automatically beginning a new one every time it finishes a download.

How does one use it? On a page with lots of downloadable files, right-click and choose “DownThemAll!”. You are then presented with a list of all the files available for download from that page. You can filter the list so that it just selects music or videos, say. Once you’ve told it which files you want and where you want them saved, it downloads them without any further intervention.

Why do I use it? I’m in a band, and often we record band practices and put the rough recordings up on a webpage. Without this plugin, I would have to click on each song individually to download them.

5. Google Reader Notifier

5a. Google Reader Watcher

In the time since I originally wrote this article, Google Reader Notifier has become rather unreliable (in my personal experience anyway). It has often failed on trying to fetch the information from my Google Reader account, after which it never manages to succeed in fetching the information, until I try updating the Notifier manually. Fortunately, there is an alternative plugin, Google Reader Watcher, which does exactly the same job, but more reliably. Of course, this is just my experience – your mileage may vary. However it appears that I’m not the only person experiencing this problem.

What does it do? It tells you whenever I have new news items in my Google Reader RSS account.

How does one use it? It’s a very simple plugin – a little RSS icon sits in the bottom panel of the browser, and next to it is the number of unread items in my account. Fairly straightforward.

Why do I use it? Umm, because it tells me unobtrusively how many news items I have in my account. It’s not rocket science.

6. Gmail Notifier

What does it do? (You may soon experience a strange sense of déja vu.) It tells you whenever I have new news mail items in my Google Reader RSS Gmail account.

How does one use it? It’s a very simple plugin – a little RSS Gmail icon sits in the bottom panel of the browser, and next to it is the number of unread items in my account. Fairly straightforward.

Why do I use it? Umm, because it tells me unobtrusively how many news items I have in my account hot chicks there are all dying to go out with me since the last time I checked. It’s not rocket science.

7. Athens Toolbar

What does it do? Athens is an academic library authorisation service which allows members of academic institutions to identify themselves as such to libraries, online journal publishers, etc. even when they are using a computer outside that institution. The toolbar, very simply, tells you whether you’re logged in to the Athens service, and if so, which institution you’re signed in under.

How does one use it? Er… one doesn’t. One just logs in to Athens and this toolbar keeps track of whether you’re logged in or not.

Why do I use it? Because I use Athens an awful lot and it can be quite tricky to keep track of your log-in status without it.

8. FireFTP

What does it do? It’s an FTP client which runs inside Firefox. It’s not really worth me explaining what an FTP client is, because if you don’t know already, you probably don’t need one.

How does one use it? You open FireFTP from the “Tools” menu, and once you’ve done so, a tab opens up resembling a fairly straightforward FTP Client, allowing you to transfer files to and from the web.

Why do I use it? I use FTP occasionally to maintain my website. This one does the job, probably no better or worse than any normal FTP client.

9. Download Statusbar

What does it do? Instead of displaying the progress of downloaded files in the usual box that opens up, progress of downloaded files is displayed in a nice neat statusbar at the bottom of the screen.

How does one use it? Automatically. Once you install the plug-in, any new downloads will be displayed using the status bar rather than the usual downloads box.

Why do I use it? It’s a matter of taste. I prefer to have downloads accessible in my main browser window, rather than separately.

10. Delicious Bookmarks

What does it do? It allows for quick posting to the Delicious.com shared bookmark service. I use this to maintain the “Asides” part of this blog.

How does one use it? The plugin places some extra buttons next to your address bar. These are fairly self-explanatory. There are also some other panels and toolbars that display your Delicious bookmarks, but I don’t use them.

Why do I use it? Purely to maintain the Asides section of my blog. No other reason.

11. FireGestures

What does it do? FireGestures lets you perform Firefox functions by right-clicking and drawing lines and shapes on the screen. For example, right-clicking and dragging the mouse to the left moves back one page; right-clicking and dragging the mouse in an L-shape down and to the right closes the current tab.

How does one use it? Right-click and move the mouse. A green line appears showing you the gesture that you’re performing. You can either use the default gestures or customise your own.

Why do I use it? To be honest, I could get rid of it, but it’s quite cool. My problem is that I can never remember what gesture corresponds with what function. The “rocker” functions (holding down one mouse button while pressing the other) are rather useful, however. I use them to open links in new tabs without having to hold down “Ctrl” on the keyboard.

12. Fission

What does it do? This simple plugin displays a page loading progress meter in the address bar. Ever used Safari on the Mac? It’s like that.

How does one use it? It works all by itself.

Why do I use it? It looks kind of nice. To be honest, I could live without it.

And there you have it. I hope I have introduced you to a whole new world. Or at least one new plug-in. You may find other plug-ins that are infinitely more useful for your own needs. I just chose to write about the ones that are currently installed on my laptop; I don’t make any claim for these being the “top twelve” or “plug-ins that nobody should be without”. The only two I would (possibly) make such a claim for are Ad-block plus (unless you’re very tolerant of adverts) and Zotero (if you do any kind of academic or commercial writing where you need to write a bibliography). Feel free to post yours if you feel strongly about it – if you can write about it using the same format as I have, even better!

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