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What are Software Plug-Ins?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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Software plug-ins are miniature programs that “plug into” a host program for additional functionality. Plug-ins allow a third-party application to be used within the host program, acting as a kind of liaison or bridge. There are many kinds of plug-ins, but one that many Web surfers will be familiar with is the Acrobat® Reader® plug-in for Web browsers. This allows .pdf files to be read within the browser window. Other popular browser plug-ins include QuickTime® to view movies, and the Flash® plug-in to view Flash scripts.

Email programs can utilize various plug-ins to provide secure levels of encryption. These plug-ins work in conjunction with Pretty Good Privacy® (PGP®), the premiere encryption software on the Internet. Installing a PGP® plug-in to an email application adds encryption-related icons to the toolbar menu. These additional icons allow easy access to instant encrypting and decrypting of emails, though an email client can also be configured to perform these functions automatically. PGP® must be installed prior to installing a PGP® plug-in.

In many cases graphics programs require plug-ins to support proprietary file formats. For example, Adobe® Photoshop® uses a unique format. To view a saved file from Photoshop® in another graphics program, the program will likely require a plug-in that adds this capability. There are also plug-ins that can be used in Photoshop®, Paint Shop Pro™ and other paint programs to extend the effects menus for creating unique and professional results.

Media players use plug-ins to support various audio file formats and to extend functionality. In this category, some plug-ins decode media data, some provide additional visualization capability, and other plug-ins add effects filters like reverb and equalization to the media player.

Secondary plug-ins can help primary plug-ins work better or faster. If you’ve ever been frustrated with how long it takes an Adobe® .pdf file to open inside your browser, there are plug-ins available to speed up the process. Other plug-ins provide shortcuts to deeply buried menu items, such as the ability to clean your browser cache with the click of a conveniently placed button.

To find plug-ins use the search box of your favorite download site. You can find plug-ins for a specific program by entering the name of the program, a plus sign and the word “plug-ins,” such as Explorer +plug-ins in any search engine. Plug-ins might also be referred to as “add-ons,” an umbrella term used by Mozilla Firefox® to include plug-ins, themes and add-ons for that browser.

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Discussion Comments
By letshearit — On May 27, 2011

Is it common for video players to constantly need new software plug-ins to work?

I am always watching videos online and I find that a lot of sites are using their own players and video formats these days. This means that I am either required to download another player, or a bunch of plug-ins to get the video up and running.

Also, has anyone had the problem where you get the video to work, but sometimes the audio doesn't? Do you think this could be a plug-in problem?

I would love if there were just one universal video player that would solve these issues. But I think I am going to be out of luck for a long while to come.

By manykitties2 — On May 26, 2011

When your search engine takes you to a site and it asks you to install a software plug-in, is this mandatory?

I visit some online gaming sites and they are always asking me to install new things. While I want my games to work, I am not always sure if the plug-ins that pop up are necessary for me to play or not.

Does anyone know if there is a way to tell good plug-ins from ones that may be carrying viruses or malware? Do you think that your anti-virus would catch this kind of download?

I would really like to keep using these sites, but not if I have to install something new every time I visit.

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