File Under: Browsers, Software

Chrome Extensions Are Cool, But They Can’t Match Firefox

In the current browser wars, just as in rounds past, Internet Explorer is the agreed-upon common target. Google’s Chrome, Mozilla’s Firefox and, though it’s less vocal about it, Apple’s Safari, are all after IE’s vast market share much more so than each others’.

But Google has recently been touting a new capability in Chrome that was once wholly owned by Firefox — browser add-ons. Earlier this week, the company launched official support for add-ons in Chrome which means Firefox fans accustomed to tricking out their browser with dozens of extensions can now do the same with Google’s faster upstart. It also puts these two key players, who would otherwise be considered allies against Microsoft, even more at odds than they were before.

Unfortunately for Google, due to technical shortcomings and some license restrictions, Chrome’s extensions are unlikely to ever match the power and variety of what’s available for Firefox.

On the plus side, Chrome extensions are remarkably easy to build. Using common web tools like HTML and JavaScript, Chrome extensions require no special programming knowledge and development is fast — at a developer event held at Google’s office Wednesday night, Chrome’s developers showed off how easy it is to build a Chrome extension by doing so live onstage in five minutes.

No doubt, that’s very impressive. And you quite simply could not do that with Firefox. But Mozilla is already moving toward an easier-to-build extensions system as well. Mozilla’s JetPack experiment, a Mozilla Labs project that will eventually allow developers to build extensions using simple JavaScript and HTML, is already well on its way to maturity and will be heading to Firefox in the near future.

What’s more important, however, is that despite how easily you can build them, Google’s terms of service for its extensions and its lack (thus far) of low-level tools mean Google Chrome extensions are still playing catch-up with what you’ll find in Firefox.

In fact, if you search through the Chrome extensions gallery looking for the kind of extensions popular with Firefox users, you’ll notice there are very few available and, more importantly, entire categories are absent.

For example, there’s no extension for downloading YouTube movies or any of the many BitTorrent helpers (or full-fledged clients) that exist for Firefox.

It might be that no one has developed such add-ons yet, but even if they did it would most likely run afoul of Google’s Chrome extension guidelines, which outlaw things like copyright infringement, hate speech and any extension to “enable the unauthorized download of streaming content or media.”

You also won’t find any add-ons that selectively block scripts — like Firefox’s NoScript or FlashBlock. As NoScript developer Giorgio Maone points out on his blog, “Chrome is still lacking the required infrastructure for selective script disablement and object blocking.”

That doesn’t just mean that NoScript doesn’t work, it means that the Flash blockers and even the ad blockers you’ll find in the Chrome extension gallery are, as Maone has demonstrated in his post, “ridiculously easy to circumvent.”

Ad blockers are an area where Google must certainly be hesitant. After all, if Chrome were to achieve IE’s market share and support extensions that block ads in a way that won’t be easy to circumvent, it could have a very real, very negative affect on Google’s bottom line.

So if Chrome extensions lack the power of those in Firefox, and Google’s terms restrict what developers can build, what’s left?

Well, Chrome is undeniably faster than Firefox, and even though it’s been only a few days since extensions became official for Windows and Linux (but not Mac) users, Chrome has almost 500 extensions available. Obviously, Chrome is going to be a popular platform to develop for in spite of its restrictions, limitations and its complex connection to the business model of its corporate parent, which may at times run in opposition to the demands of users on the open web.

We look forward to seeing what developers can do to extend Chrome and hope that in the future Google will give developers more access and refrain from censoring apps the company doesn’t like. Otherwise, Chrome extensions will end up looking more like apps in Apple’s tightly controlled App Store and less like the type of hacker-centric creations we’re hoping to see.

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