Applications are everywhere. From the familiar apps found on mobile devices, to the more complex software used by PC desktops and the streamlined code leveraged by purpose-built sensor and fitness technologies, applications have become a ubiquitous part of everyday digital life.

The challenge? No app can be all things to all people. No single piece of software can deliver every compute function for every user — no matter how powerful it might be.

Plugins offer a way to bridge the gap between form and function. By adding specific features to applications without affecting the underlying code, these pieces of software effectively “plug in” to existing operational frameworks, allowing users to get the features they want and empowering developers to use technology tools that already exist, rather than reinventing the digital wheel.

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But what exactly are plugins? How do they work, why do they matter — and what are some best practices for safe and streamlined plugin use? Here’s what you need to know.

What are plugins?

Consider the most popular PC operating system in the world — Windows. Used by individuals and corporations alike, various iterations of Windows have offered a host of functionality; everything from the ability to create complex documents, browse the World Wide Web, edit photographs and facilitate the operation of familiar software programs.

But Windows can’t do everything. For example, while most Windows versions offer basic audio editing tools they lack the in-depth functionality of more robust, purpose-built solutions. While Microsoft software engineers could take the time to code complete audio editing tools and implement them into new Windows releases, the evolving nature of user demands and application functions would require ongoing support to ensure built-in offerings lived up to expectations.

Plugins offer a way to access key functions without the need for in-software solutions. Just as television plugs into the electrical system of your home to deliver on-demand media access, software plugins leverage the existing structure of application code to provide specific functions. In the case of Windows, there are a host of free and for-pay audio plugins available that use common Windows software components to support more robust functionality — without changing the underlying code.

This is the biggest benefit of plugins: The ability to quickly add or remove them from software without altering fundamental application operations.

How do plugins work?

The idea behind plugins is simple: Developers create small pieces of software that can be added to computer programs, mobile applications, or websites to improve functionality without significantly increasing resource use or compelling primary software developers to offer ongoing plugin support.

Instead, plugins make use of publicly-available code structures that allow them to interface with existing software tools. In effect, this code allows them to speak the same language — plugins can request specific resources or actions from software systems at large, allowing them to deliver targeted functionality for users.

Plugins must also strike a balance between security and accessibility, especially when used for business applications on corporate networks or to improve consumer website accessibility. Software makers and operating system (OS) developers will typically define specific use parameters that govern what plugins can and can’t do in their software environments — in practice, this means that while an audio plugin will likely be able to request microphone and speaker access (that must be approved by the end-user) the same plugin won’t be granted access to more in-depth functions that aren’t related to audio output.

It’s worth noting that different software and OS developers have different approaches to plugin security. For example, Apple’s iOS ecosystem has historically favored more restrictive policies than Windows or Android, resulting in generally better security but reduced plugin functionality for users.

Why do plugins matter?

Plugins matter because they help take the burden off generic software solutions and instead allow users to add the functions they want, when they want them. Even better? These plugins don’t alter the underlying code, making them easy to add or remove with any negative impact on overall software function.

Just like typical software, however, plugins do require regular updates to ensure they work with the latest OS version — as a result, plugin developers must continue to support their work as connected software receives security or operational updates. If they abandon the project, plugins will eventually stop working as newer software versions outpace their design framework.

Plugins are also critical to help streamline website form and function. With a host of plugins to help site owners do everything from create and distribute marketing emails to personalize user content and analyze traffic data, website plugins offer key functionality without the need to worry about specific software restrictions or operational conflicts that could take websites offline.

Plugin Best Practices

Considering a plugin for your website, desktop or mobile application? Take a look through these best practices before powering up:

1. Make security your first priority.

To deliver key functions, plugins must ask website administrators or device owners for specific permissions. These often include the ability to access certain device functions or data to help deliver desired outcomes. The caveat? Not all plugins are secure. Some may be designed maliciously on purpose to steal or destroy data, while others suffer from poor design choices that create new security risks. In either case, always assess what permissions plugins are asking for; if a new audio plugin wants access to your email contacts and documents folder, ask why — and say no if something seems suspicious.

2. Consider plugin cost.

While many great plugins are free, that doesn’t mean they come without cost — especially if you’re using them on your website. Here’s why: The more plugins you add, the longer it takes your page to load and the more bandwidth required to deliver page features. As a result, it’s critical to find a balance between plugin potential and overall performance.

3. Limit overlapping function.

Many plugins offer multiple features or are regularly updated to include new functions. Best bet? Don’t use multiple plugins for the same purpose, since this both slows down your device or website and can lead to data fragmentation. Instead, use single plugins for a specific purpose — and remove them if that purpose is no longer served.

4. Evaluate new options.

As software evolves, plugins must keep pace to deliver value-added functionality, and as noted above if plugin developers stop updating their code over time, plugin features will eventually stop working. To ensure you’re getting the best combination of software form and code framework, regularly take the time to track down “best of” plugin lists and reviews to ensure you’re getting the ideal combination of size, speed, and specific function.

Plug and Play

Plugins reduce complexity and improve functionality for desktop software, mobile device applications, and even IoT applications by running targeted code alongside existing software rather than changing its structure.

To get the most from this plug-and-play potential, however, end-users and website owners should always err on the side of security, ensure they don’t overburden infrastructure excess plugins, and regularly evaluate the lightweight code landscape for potential plugin improvements.

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Originally published Dec 28, 2020 7:00:00 AM, updated December 28 2020

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