Too many extensions?

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In today’s technological world, extensions have become a by-word for computer operation and efficiency.

These mini programs extend what you can do with that program, or make what you can do much easier. For example, an extension called Web Clipper (that works with most popular browsers) lets you save what you see on the web, add tags or notes, and file it away for future reference. This sort of ease of use is the hallmark of browser extensions: a tool that adds value to any toolbar.

Yet this ease is tempting all too many users to clutter their browsers with extensions – no matter how minor the function, or how similar to those previously added. This habit of “overextending” might solve or simplify a great many things the daily computer user encounters, but does not come without disadvantages.

What happens when you have too many extensions
Slowed performance. Although the browser itself may run just fine, extensions add on to that, taking up more memory and CPU cycles. Even in an age of rapid computer operating speeds, bigger systems will reveal a slowing in performance. Notebooks naturally show the strain with fewer open extensions. This irony is surely not lost on software developers, who create extensions to speed up daily computer use, with the unintended result that overuse ends up slowing it.

Security issues. Then there’s the higher risk of instability and security holes. The analogy of “the fewer parts something has, the less likely it is to fail”, applies also to browsers. An excess of extensions could crash the browser and compromise it from a security standpoint. Even when browser developers try to filter out bad extensions, it doesn’t make users safe. Only recently, Google plugged 13 security holes with another Chrome update, including issues with garbage collection, type corruption and buffer overflows. The very variety that Google offers makes any kind of a security guarantee impossible. For if malware applications can appear in Android’s Play Store, how can Google practise better control over what extensions reach the Chrome Web Store?

Contradicting functions. Also, if you’re in the habit of having 10, 15 or even more extensions installed, you might find two that contradict each others’ function. The temptation is that there are so many extensions available, with the ability to solve a mind-boggling multitude of problems. Consequently, two extensions might solve the same problem differently. Not to mention the aesthetic clutter that an abundance of extensions present to the user. This all adds up to a diminished overall browsing experience, as a result of a cluttered operating system – which is supposed to be relatively simple.

We all know that our web activities can be – and indeed are being – tracked, and that ever-more detailed web profiles are being built up so that advertisers can target their marketing more accurately. According to online data analysis firm Krux, in the last two years this type of behavioural tracking has increased by 400%, so that now when you visit one website it will trigger on average 56 instances of data collection.[1] And the figures are growing. So who is providing the information? You are. Most of the data is collected by tracking your use of the browser toolbar, or your cookies, or that widget you use that links you to your favourite social-networking site. Of course, this is an issue which will bother some people more than others. Do you mind if your web activities can be tracked? Do you want to be actively targeted by advertisers? Maybe you do – but if not, there’s nothing much you can do about it, except to be aware of the issue and to limit your use of the web – and more specifically your toolbar – accordingly.

How should you solve it?
If this is beginning to sound confusing, that’s hardly the point of extensions, which are intended to make your browser better, and operating it simpler.

Perhaps demonstrating the cycle users are lured into, a solution can be found in … another extension. Chrome Context organises your extensions into “contextual” groups. That is to say, if you are for example listening to music or watching movies, Context allows you to load only the extensions that relate to that. The remaining ones can be kept hidden.

But the best solution is also the most obvious: simply use fewer extensions. Rely on those you truly need, which you use every day and which are helpful. Detailed knowledge of what an extension does will help, so read the Terms of Use carefully. It’s easy to forget that extensions are little programs that feed off a computer’s resources. And some can be real resource drains.

So: a better browser or a slower, overachieving one? The answer, as with all trade-offs, is to find a balance. Your balance. In the end, there’s no substitute for efficiency … so make the most of your browser by letting extensions work for it, rather than against it.

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