Plugin Functionality - In the browser or on the page?

I love firefox extensions and use a bunch of them. The plugin architecture has made the browser much more powerful. There are many things that you can do with a browser plugin, but the two most obvious things are add functionality to the browser or add functionality to the page.

A good example of the first is the delicious firefox extension. I use the delicious extension, largely to post to delicious, but it can also be used to navigate your bookmarks in the browser via a sidebar that looks like this:


I have to say that I am not a huge fan of plugins that change the browser’s user interface. I am a fan of simplicity when it comes to a browser.

The second approach is to deliver the functionality on the page. This week I saw Mahalo make a big change to their extension called Mahalo Follow. I’ve had Mahalo Follow installed for a while now and in the past, when you did a Google search, it opened up a sidebar (like the delicious sidebar shown above) with additional search results from Mahalo. It was occasionally useful but not always and I found the sidebar annoying, particularly the need to close it.

Yesterday, I did a search on my name on Google and instead of opening a sidebar, this came up in the browser.


I was startled so see real value being delivered in a simple elegant and quick way. I sent an email to Jason Calacanis, founder and CEO of Mahalo, asking how long they’ve been doing this. He said for about a week and naturally suggested I blog about it. And so I have.

I am curious if others agree with me that delivering the functionality on the page instead of in the browser is better. I certainly think it is.

Full disclosure: I am a small investor personally in Mahalo and our firm was an investor in delicious before it was sold to Yahoo!

#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. VM

    Fred – I do not get the Mahalo results (Mahalo Top 7 for Fred Wilson) when I do a Google serach on you name. Everything from AVC and below appears

    1. Christopher Finke

      You might not have the feature enabled; you can check in the Mahalo Follow options dialog.

      1. VM

        Thanks. My bad.

  2. jeremystein

    it is a better way to deliver functionality, but you might run into problems down the road. i know they aren’t quite like gator, but you can run into problems if you alter a page.

  3. Christopher Finke

    Having had a small part in the development of Mahalo Follow, I naturally agree with you that integrating functionality with page content can be more valuable than just adding content to a browser pane, but the drawback is that it can’t be generalized in the same way that in-browser content can be. Although Follow has this in-page feature for Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Ask, it has to specifically tailor the code for each site based on that site’s underlying HTML. It can’t just use the same code for any webpage, like it could if it just stuck the info in a toolbar or sidebar.Of course, that’s a problem for the developers to solve, not the feature designers. 🙂

  4. Offbeatmammal

    I like the way it works at the moment – it’s small, it respects the design ethos and usability of the google page and it ‘just works’What scares me is if down the line they want to start injecting a little ad, or taking up more and more of the page, or they break functionality.I originally liked SiteAdvisor for those reasons of simplicity and elegant function.. they Mcafee bought them and started adding “function” and breaking the page….

  5. Philippe Bradley

    in-page mashups are a great for users; this is my first comment written from within Google Reader (using the gReader extension… and it’s a wonderful, much-needed addition to Google Reader.Several issues though. Firstly, I don’t think right now there’s a viable way of streamlining a plugin into all webpages; the app developers have to work on a site-by-site basis. Maybe a future web standard can add ‘hooks’ into pages so users can hook in whatever extra feature they have enabled extensions for, whether the extension developer knows about that page or not. People love to customise their experience!The second issue is that if you are the application being hooked in, you’re effectively a parasite infecting a host; was Google’s permission sought before a rival’s content was integrated into its own page? Parasites in biology can be symbiotic, but a great many are not.I used to have to visit your site (and register as an ad impression, if you have ads) – no longer necessary, I can stay within the clean, largely ad-free comfort of my RSS reader. If our content is being consumed entirely off-site now thanks to mashups (Google Reader is a paradigmatic mashup, pulling in data from lots of sources to display within its own site/application), we need better ways of monitoring offsite access and consumption of our content.

  6. rfreeborn

    shouldn’t the the browser vs. page debate be based on the type of functionality that you are looking to derive?this “follow” functionality is a good example of something that is better to be represented on the page then in a browser sidebar. while i understand chris’s point about it needing to be site specific – can’t you cover 90% of the market with the handful that you are now…i.e. google, yahoo, msn and ask? the better user experience is worth the few percent..or possibly tenths of a percent…that you are missing now.a good example of something that shouldn’t be page based and is better in the browser would be a feature/function like the accuweather plug-in. it would be pretty annoying to have that intrude on every search result and it tucks into the browser pain flawlessly….same for the gmail notifier plugin.heck, the entire google toolbar NEEDS to be delivered via the browser rather then via the the course of writing this i realized this i realized that it’s really a function of context – how does this added info relate to what you are doing in the browser or on the page??r.

  7. jer979

    Best part about this comment was learning about the gReader extension for comments. I’ve noticed that my participation in comments has dropped as I finally found a reader I really liked and moved through posts more quickly.Guess I learned my lesson on why it’s valuable to read comments.As far as the post, if I like the Mahalo follow function, then yeah, let it show up first…what would be neat is if, somehow, they connected to my Google account, for example and then integrated the Follow results as I prefer them…regardless of the browser I am using.I don’t want to be wedded to a given PC/Mac or a single browser. Sure, I’ll have my pimped-up version at home, but if it’s anytime, anywhere, that would be cool.

  8. Ed Anuff

    The early (pre-launch) versions of WidgetBox used this type of mechanism for embedding widgets in pages, but we abandoned the idea for several reasons, not the least of which was the support issues that it opens up. It’s deceptively easy to get something like this working, but you really have to ask yourself whether you want to be in the business of QA’ing client side software, which is what this is.

  9. Michael Vietri

    Fred – I appreciate that you disclose when you have (had) a financial interest in the companies you blog about, and I am even more impressed that you really care – and believe – in the companies you blog about and invest in.

  10. Dan Cornish

    Fat client vs. thin client. This is an old argument. I suggest thinking about the idea of hybrid applications. Some functionality is via the browser and some is delivered by a local app or thick client. Each has its strength, but I think the hate of Microsoft has blinded people, especially web developers about the idea of using the best tool for the job.

  11. curmudgeonly troll

    if I’m Google, I might have a small problem with people altering the page I’m sending, without making clear what is from Google and what is from the plug-in. Especially once you start deriving revenue by ‘enhancing’ Google results.

    1. bfeld

      Agreed – The Google isn’t going to like this very much unless Mahalo has cut a deal with them.

      1. fredwilson

        Right. But as with ad blockers, this is something the reader/audience is doing to google’s page using technology they voluntarily enable. I don’t thinbk google can stop thisFred

        1. bfeld

          Google probably can’t stop this, but I’m almost certain it’s a violation of Google’s TOS. If so, I find it ironic that Jason’s company is doing it given how indignant he’s been in the past about other sites (e.g. RSS readers) doing things to the Weblogs content (e.g. placing ads along side it in the reader.) Oh how perspective changes to fit circumstances.

          1. Philippe Bradley

            there’s an interesting meta-zeitgeist going around – people talking about losing control of the conversations that their content spawns, also people losing control of the content itself, and with this post, losing control of what it displayed on your own site. Those complaining about it are almost unequivocally also people who benefit from it. Google takes others’ content (e.g. emails) and monetises it with ads beside it. Loic uses RSS readers; brad highlights Jason’s apparent hypocrisy.Sorry guys, I don’t control my data anymore (my blog posts, my comments, my videos, my emails, even my own HTML), but I expect to control everyone else’s as if it were my own, free to aggregate it where i please, mash it up how i like, and dare I say it, even copyrights seem abstract, unnatural and easy to ignore; i might just copy your essays or music verbatim if it suits me, and put ads next to it.Growing up net connected, that’s the culture that’s been instilled into me, and frankly, it’s not as if society has put walls or a policeman online that are capable of stopping me (or more motivated hackers, in the Paul Graham sense of the word, but with loose copyright morals like my own, or those of the Mahalo engineers altering Google’s pages)

          2. bfeld

            To be clear, I’m not complaining about it at all. I’m just observing it!

          3. fredwilson

            I honstly can’t recall you complaining about anything ever bradIts in your natureFred

  12. Mark Cramer

    Fred – You might be interested in taking a look at It’s another example of functionality on the page, this time delivering real-time implicit personalization for search. We’d love to hear what you think. Thanks.

  13. fudouri

    It seems like a bit too much of a slippery slope to me.Last year, there was a virus / trojan (dont’ remember which it was exactly) which would load a display ad (728×90) above google pages. This caused complaints which actually got directed at google. Many people who had this installed did not realize it was something they had installed themselves.Now, one can say there is a difference between the virus which adds no value, and the mahalo plugin which does, but it seems like a very slippery slope to me.What would you call a plugin which adds some good functionality but also injects a display ad? What if we have a plugin that does pure rev share with the user as long as they are willing to have ads injected onto every web page they visit?

  14. DAR

    I don’t like it. To each their own, of course, but personally I don’t want my browser plugins injecting their own content into web pages. I want to know that what I’m reading comes from the site I visited. Not to mention, of course, that this can be a very slippery slope, fraught with potential technical and business issues.At the very least, if a plugin is going to do something like this, it should make it much more clearly highlighted that the content is coming from the plugin and not the site.

  15. Andrew Warner

    Strange. I’ve seen those Mahalo links for about a month.

  16. Joe G

    I would like to see firefox visually indicate to the user when a page is being altered by a plug-in, which plug-in is doing the altering, and have an easy UI to see the “natural page” and/or disable the plug-in.Letting an extension silently alter content on a page with no user-awareness strikes me as a security disaster waiting to happen.

  17. DaveS

    Mahalo is human created spam. There’s no difference from human crafted spam pages and automatically generated spam pages.

  18. Amir Nathoo

    The problem I found with was that I diligently bookmarked interesting sites as I came across them, but I never went back to the site to look through them again since I am hard-wired to go to Google when I want to find stuff. Even if it is things I have already seen.We launched WebMynd as a Firefox extensions to automatically record a visual browsing history as you browse – like a DVR for the web – and found we were experiencing a similar problem to in trying to change user behaviour. We got much better feedback from our users when we started embedding the search results from a user’s own WebMynd archive into the Google results page much like Mahalo have done.So we are definitely in the camp of functionality on page is better than in the browser on the basis of that experiment.

  19. uberChicGeekChick

    Why do geeks have to turn a simple question into some c{–} size contest,Goodness, your post was totally great &I completely agree. At least when applied to extensions that are meant to make browsing easier or better. Its why Stylish, Greasemonkey, & kaizou are my fave browsing extensions. They all easily allow the functionality or appears of the page to easily be changed without the actual need for additional extensions. I’ll gladly install an extension, script, stylesheet, or xhtml modifier that will make browsing quicker &easier. But if it tries to take control of my browser by automatically doing things to Firefox’s UI or etc.One of my pet peeves is the amount of ‘toolbars’ for firefox that should just be open search specs but instead they try to steal mind share vs being useful. &Thus end up accomplishing neither &instead just become annoying &slowly degrade the ‘companies’ reputation. Of course that brings my mind to the amount of companies based souly on their firefox extension(s) &that would be my clue to get back on topic. So on to my next point.I use my browser to browse websites secondarily to using it as a development platform. So when it comes to development I’d die without extensions like firebug, cookie editor, tamper data, selenium ide, regexp tester, javascript debugger, &a others. For web dev I abs need firefox extended. Most of these extension ‘extend the browser’ to the point where they’re more like addition XUL apps that run within firefox.*w00t!*, I’m glad the internet has become a platform for developing useful applications. I’ll just cross my fingers(dbl crossed &over lapped w/my one good hand) that someday one of my sites, podcasts, or F&OSS projects are popular enough to have extensions written to add functionality to them.