File Under: Browsers

Apple Updates Safari, Turns on Extensions

The new Safari browser with the Twitter toolbar extension installed

Apple released an update to its Safari web browser Wednesday.

Safari 5.0.1 is available from Apple as a free download for Windows and for Mac OS X (Leopard or better). Mac users can also find it in Software Update.

This is an incremental upgrade, but it comes with one big new feature: Safari now has a real platform for third-party extensions, a feature that Firefox and Chrome have had for some time.

Safari 5 arrived in early June, and in addition to dozens of other enhancements (including the much-discussed Reader feature) it included a new architecture for creating lightweight browser extensions that enhance and personalize web pages and web services. Wednesday’s update now lets you install and run those extensions. Apple has also launched a new Extensions Gallery where you can browse the available extensions and download them.

All the major browsers — Safari included — have had a variety of plug-ins, add-ons and toolbars available for years. But Safari’s new extension architecture is much closer to the format recently adopted by Google Chrome and Firefox. This new breed of extensions can be written using HTML, JavaScript, CSS and other web standards. It makes for a much gentler learning curve for potential developers, and for an experienced web programmer, the effort required to create and distribute a standards-based extension is almost trivial. For users, these extensions are easier to maintain and less likely to slow down the browser.

Mozilla calls its lightweight extension project Jetpack, and it’s being incorporated into the newest Firefox releases. The next version of Google’s browser will let users sync their extensions across multiple installations of the browser.

Go to extensions.apple.com to see the gallery of extensions being promoted by Apple. Also, keep in mind that anyone can create and distribute a Safari extension, so distribution isn’t controlled like the App Store. For safety’s sake, Safari extensions are sandboxed inside the browser and signed with a digital certificate so you know you’re getting updates from the same person who created the original.

Apple is promoting a few big-name creations in the gallery. There’s an official Twitter extension, which integrates a simple toolbar Twitter client into your browser, one from MLB that displays scores and headlines, and an eBay manager sidebar for keeping a close eye on your auctions. There’s one on the way from Instapaper.

Of course, the irreverent extensions are more interesting. There’s Defacer, which hides “Like” buttons and other Facebook cruft you find around the web. Shut Up hides comments by default on blogs. A Cleaner YouTube removes visual distractions from video pages, promising to turn YouTube into “a clean and tranquil place” as if that’s even remotely possible.

There are around 100 extensions to choose from right now, and since the new extensions framework in Safari is so simple to develop for, we expect the list to keep growing quickly.

There is one other notable safety enhancement to Safari 5.0.1 — the form auto-fill vulnerability has been patched. This fixes a vulnerability that hackers could exploit to grab personal information from a user by forcing the browser to auto-fill a hidden web form with locally stored data. So, even if you may not care for extensions, you should upgrade Safari for this reason alone.

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