What the heck is an ‘add on’, ‘add in’, or ‘plug in’?

By Sandra Clitter  

Does it seem to you like you need to learn a new language every week as technology marches forward. First, you figure out that a ‘mouse’ isn’t some small, furry creature hiding in your walls. Next, a ‘virus’ isn’t something that you have to go to the doctor to cure. Then, ‘tweet’ is no longer something said by a bird! What!?!?!

The list goes on and on. We’ve all gotten those e-mails that have a long list of computer terminology that used to mean one thing, but now means something entirely different. Don’t you end up laughing out loud (aka LOL) and nodding your head? I know that I do.

And, those are the ‘major’ terms that we run across. So while we’re desperately struggling to keep up with those ‘popular’ terms, there’s another entire subculture of terms bubbling up. Those terms are the ones that might be casually mentioned in an article, included in the instructions for yet another contraption you’re trying to set-up or untangle, be the label for a menu choice on a screen, etc. They’re not big and flashy terms, but they’re tiny ones that just sneak up on you! All of a sudden, you’re surrounded by them…it’s time to figure out what they mean :-).

Today, let’s tackle one group of these ‘other’ terms. I seem to find myself running across terms like ‘Add-on’, ‘Add-in’ and ‘Plugin’ more and more frequently. While there may be some fine distinctions between these words, to me they are all part of one ‘class’ – basically, little programs that you can utilize to make bigger programs work more to your liking. Actually, they are quite ingenious! They allow you to customize applications…what a great concept!!! Who used to use the slogan ‘Have it your way’? I think that belongs to Burger King, but plug-ins and add-ons allow you to have your programs work your way.

First, a program is created with some basic functionality. It might even be a pretty sophisticated program (e.g. WordPress [in which this blog is created], Outlook [my e-mail/calendar/contacts program of choice], or Firefox [my browser of choice]). But regardless of how sophisticated the program, there’s always going to be ‘one more feature’ that you just WISHED you had. Some feature that would make it soooo much easier, or more convenient, when utilizing that particular software.

Enter the plug-in or add-on. These are tiny programs that run in conjunction with other, typically larger, programs. Each plug-in or add-on has a very specific job – a job that the ‘parent’ program doesn’t do. They enhance the larger program, adding a functionality that you may need, but that not everyone may want. I’ll give you a few examples.

In Outlook, I wanted to be able to sync all my information to my Gmail account – INCLUDING NOTES. I found a plug-in to Outlook (the one I found is called gSyncIt [available from Fieldstone Software]) which does just that. Install it and kabang! I can sync my Outlook Notes to my Gmail account.

Another example is in WordPress. Among the valuable comments made by many blog readers, there are also a bunch of people who make rude or unpublishable comments (consider it blog spam). In order to filter them out, you can add a plug-in called Akismet which automatically filters out ‘spam’ comments. Install it, and blog spam is significantly reduced.

This blog also uses a Statistics plug in, so that I can see, at a glance, what the traffic to the blog looked like for a given time period. This plug-in functions like Google Analytics, but just for the blog. Most interesting to me about this plug-in is that WordPress itself put it out to enhance its own tool. They realize that this feature might not be important to all bloggers, so they allow us the ability to install it (plug it in, as it were) if we want to use it.

The last example that I’ll give here is a Firefox Add-In. I often need to FTP something to the web (‘FTP’ stands for ‘File Transfer Protocol’ and is the way that web-pages are published, or information is passed to/from the web). Internet Explorer has an FTP utility built in, but many people don’t need it, so it just adds baggage to the program. Firefox doesn’t deliver it by default, but users can install FireFTP to the Firefox browser and voila! I can FTP from Firefox, just as I would via IE.

All of these little ‘tools’ make my online life much easier.

Bottom line: If you use a program and find yourself saying ‘I wish this program did X’, then try Googling the program name along with a brief description of the added functionality you wish you had, and see what pops up. More and more programs are allowing plug-ins, add-ons, add-ins (whatever you want to call them) to their programs. Take advantage of them! Your computing life may improve drastically.

P.S. Both Firefox and WordPress have pages dedicated to helping you find valuable add-ins. Here are links to those:


  1. Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink | Reply

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  2. Posted August 13, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Today, I went to the beachfront with my children. I found a sea
    shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed.

    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She
    never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely
    off topic but I had to tell someone!

  3. Posted March 25, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink | Reply

    Once again, Sandy, you tackled a sometimes-confusing topic and made it seem simple.

    These days when we customize our cars, our wardrobes, our smartphones, and even the look of our credit cards, it’s important to be able to get computer programs and online services to help us OUR way, not just theirs.

    Add-ons and plugins do a great job with that. One size does NOT fit all… and these help do it our way.


    Charlie Seymour Jr

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