|I bought a truck once and
was surprised to find it didnít come with a bumper. Apparently, some people
like big bumpers, others like small ones, some like black ones, others
chrome, some people want a hitch and some donít. Instead of welding on
a bumper that no one liked, they made it an option. Same with the stereo
system, bed liner and the cap for the truck ó some people might not have
a use for these at all! Think of these options as plug-ins.
Plug-ins are software programs that extend the capabilities of your
browser in a specific way - giving you, for example, the ability to play
audio or view movies from within Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet
Explorer. Think of them as third-party options.
Not everyone needs Virtual Reality Modeling Language capability (VRML)
ó I sure donít. And those who do probably have a preference about which
of several dozen programs they want to use. I shouldnít have to eat up
10 MB of disk space on a feature I donít want, and the VRML fans shouldnít
have to hassle with uninstalling the rejected program for the preferred
Plug-ins were developed by Netscape, and in theory, Netscape uses plug-ins
while Internet Explorer uses Active-X controls to accomplish the same tasks.
In reality, Netscape uses some Active-X and MSIE uses some plug-ins, but
the was they work is pretty much the same. Plug-ins operate seamlessly
with your browser. Typically, they make something happen in the browser
window. You probably have some installed and donít even know that they
are there. In Netscape, go to help. . .about plug-ins, and you will get
a list of the ones you have installed. Internet Explorer doesnít have a
similar list, or if it does I canít find it.
If you need a plug-in and it is not installed, you might get a warning
window describing the plug-in, with a link to download it. You might get
a "broken plug-in" icon, which may or may not have a link to get it. You
might get a warning on the page that a particular plug-in is needed to
make the page work correctly with a link to a download site. You might
not get anything, which means you have to figure out what you need to make
the web site run properly. Most plug-ins are free.
Letís look at an example. The Ricola site has an interactive herb garden
that uses the Shockwave plug-in. This plug-in lets you scroll around a
panoramic picture of a Swiss garden. Herbs are marked with a red box; when
you click on one, another window pops up with a rotating picture and text
description of the herb you picked. The site is at <www.ricola.com/herbgarden/index.html>.
Look for the description of the required plug-in. If you think you have
it, click on the text link at the bottom of the screen that says, "Directly
to Herb Garden" and check it out. Newer browsers come with ShockWave pre-installed,
so odds are you can view this.
If you have to install a plug-in it can get complicated. Some
plug-ins and Active-X Controls will install themselves automatically, using
a live-update procedure that takes little thought or effort on your
part. Most of these begin working immediately. Others must be downloaded
onto your hard drive and then manually installed. (To do this, start.
. .run. . .browse. . .select .exe file. . .OK.
. . then follow the instructions.) Sometimes you will have to restart your
browser, or sometimes even restart your computer. Some may give you a security
alert (none of the ones Iíve listed do) so treat those with your own comfort
level. Plug-ins are being upgraded constantly, so even if you have one
installed it might not be recent enough to cope with the latest files.
There are hundreds of plug-ins, and if you rush right out to download
and install all of them you have defeated their purpose. Remember, they
are options! Just get the ones you need, when you need them. Some plug-ins
have limited use. If you are just curious, it might not be worth the time,
trouble and disk space to download and install these one-time-use plug-ins.
A few plug-ins are ubiquitous and are well worth the effort to install.
Here are the five I recommend, but even with these, itís probably not worth
the effort to install them until you run into a site that uses them.
Adobe Acrobat Reader:
Get it from www. Adobe.com.
This opens documents in a portable document format (pdf files) which is
just what it sounds like. The creator of the document can use any software
to create a document, convert it to a pdf file, and if you have the reader
installed, you can open and print the page. The IRS uses this for income
tax forms so itís handy to have. If you want to try opening a PDF file
to see whether you have the reader installed, go to <www.salsa.net/peace/mmm>
and click on "download flier."
Get it from <www. real.com>.
Audio and video, which is video and music that starts playing immediately
instead of having to wait until the entire file is downloaded. The program
litters icons all over your desktop, so if you have it, youíll probably
know it. Their web site can be confusing; make sure you get the free player
and not the one that costs $29.95. To check if you have the capability
of streaming media, go to the SAVAE
web site and click on one of the sound samples.
Get it at <www.apple.com/quicktime/download/index.html>.
This is a movie player. Check out a sample at <http://www.salsa.net/peace/video/video.html>.
The first public service announcement is in QuickTime format; the second
is an MPEG video, which should open in your Windows media player. The third
and fourth files are RealMedia files, which youíve tested already. These
files are really big, so set aside some time to let them download.
Flash and ShockWave:
Get both from <www.macromedia.com>.
Flash delivers high-impact musical tracks, sound effects, animations and
innovative interfaces. Shockwave Player allows you to view new forms of
entertainment on the Web, such as games, music, rich-media chat, interactive
product demos, and e-merchandising applications. There are lots of examples
of both formats at this site that you can use as test files.
Good lists of plug-ins are at <www.browserwatch.com>
(click on Plug-in Plaza) and <www.netscape.com/plugins/index.html>.