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In computing, a plug-in (or plugin, add-in, addin, add-on, addon, or extension) is a software component that adds a specific feature to an existing computer program. When a program supports plug-ins, it enables customization. The common examples are the plug-ins used in web browsers to add new features such as search-engines, virus scanners, or the ability to use a new file type such as a new video format. Well-known browser plug-ins include the Adobe Flash Player, the QuickTime Player, and the Java plug-in, which can launch a user-activated Java applet on a web page to its execution on a local Java virtual machine.
A theme or skin is a preset package containing additional or changed graphical appearance details, achieved by the use of a graphical user interface (GUI) that can be applied to specific software and websites to suit the purpose, topic, or tastes of different users to customize the look and feel of a piece of computer software or an operating system front-end GUI (and window managers).
Purpose and examples
Applications support plug-ins for many reasons. Some of the main reasons include:
- to enable third-party developers to create abilities which extend an application
- to support easily adding new features
- to reduce the size of an application
- to separate source code from an application because of incompatible software licenses.
Types of applications and why they use plug-ins:
- Audio editors use plug-ins to generate, process or analyse sound. Ardour and Audacity are examples of such editors.
- Email clients use plug-ins to decrypt and encrypt email. Pretty Good Privacy is an example of such plug-ins.
- Graphics software use plug-ins to support file formats and process images. (c.f. Photoshop plugin)
- Media players use plug-ins to support file formats and apply filters. foobar2000, GStreamer, Quintessential, VST, Winamp, XMMS are examples of such media players.
- Packet sniffers use plug-ins to decode packet formats. OmniPeek is an example of such packet sniffers.
- Remote sensing applications use plug-ins to process data from different sensor types; e.g., Opticks.
- Text editors and Integrated development environments use plug-ins to support programming languages or enhance development process e.g., Visual Studio, RAD Studio, Eclipse, IntelliJ IDEA, jEdit and MonoDevelop support plug-ins. Visual Studio itself can be plugged into other applications via Visual Studio Tools for Office and Visual Studio Tools for Applications.
- Web browsers use browser extensions to expand their functionality. Examples include Adobe Flash Player, Java SE, QuickTime, Microsoft Silverlight, 3DMLW and Unity.
As shown in the figure, the host application provides services which the plug-in can use, including a way for plug-ins to register themselves with the host application and a protocol for the exchange of data with plug-ins. Plug-ins depend on the services provided by the host application and do not usually work by themselves. Conversely, the host application operates independently of the plug-ins, making it possible for end-users to add and update plug-ins dynamically without needing to make changes to the host application.
Programmers typically implement plug-in functionality using shared libraries installed in a place prescribed by the host application. HyperCard supported a similar facility, but more commonly included the plug-in code in the HyperCard documents (called stacks) themselves. Thus the HyperCard stack became a self-contained application in its own right, distributable as a single entity that end-users could run without the need for additional installation-steps. Programs may also implement plugins by loading a directory of simple script files written in a scripting language like Python or Lua.
In Mozilla Foundation definitions, the words "add-on", "extension" and "plug-in" are not synonyms. "Add-on" can refer to anything that extends the functions of a Mozilla application. Extensions comprise a subtype, albeit the most common and the most powerful one. Mozilla applications come with integrated add-on managers that, similar to package managers, install, update and manage extensions. The term, "Plug-in", however, strictly refers to NPAPI-based web content renderers. Plug-ins are being deprecated.
Plug-ins appeared as early as the mid 1970s, when the EDT text editor running on the Unisys VS/9 operating system using the UNIVAC Series 90 mainframe computers provided the ability to run a program from the editor and to allow such a program to access the editor buffer, thus allowing an external program to access an edit session in memory. The plug-in program could make calls to the editor to have it perform text-editing services upon the buffer that the editor shared with the plug-in. The Waterloo Fortran compiler used this feature to allow interactive compilation of Fortran programs edited by EDT.
Very early PC software applications to incorporate plug-in functionality included HyperCard and QuarkXPress on the Macintosh, both released in 1987. In 1988, Silicon Beach Software included plug-in functionality in Digital Darkroom and SuperPaint, and Ed Bomke coined the term plug-in.