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What are plug-ins?

A jigsaw puzzle

Your computer is a powerful tool and can do a lot by itself. Sometimes it needs a little help and you’re offered something called a plug-in. This article tells you what they are and whether you need them.

WebWise Team | 10th October 2012

You’re reading a web page – sorry, “surfing” a web page (to use the jargon) – and it’s all going well. You move to another page, or switch to another application, and suddenly it won’t do anything because it hasn’t got XX plug-in. You’re confused – is this a virus, or a scam?

It’s probably neither of those things, although scammers are quite capable of making their false software look like a plug-in.

What is a plug-in?

A plug-in is a (sometimes essential) piece of software code that enables an application or program to do something it couldn’t by itself. One of the more common plug-ins is Adobe Flash Player. Without Flash Player you won’t, for example, be able to view BBC News bulletins embedded into web pages.

Other plug-ins are available for different things. There are plug-ins for social media networking, foreign language alphabets and many other things. One plug-in allows for the display of Microsoft Office 2007 documents within the browser.

Numerous other plug-ins exist. Email programs will use the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) plug-ins for security. Media players might need a plug-in to play a specific type of media. Microsoft Office has plug-ins available for certain specific specialist applications.

Do you really need it?

So if your computer offers you a plug-in, or ‘add-on’ as they’re often called, it can be a very good idea to install it (by following the instructions on the screen) if it’s something you’re going to use. It’s not always necessary, though. Every individual plug-in takes up a little space, so consider whether it’s going to help.

And as mentioned above, some scammers will try to make their malware look like a legitimate plug-in. Make sure your security software is up to date at all times and your computer will alert you if there’s anything suspicious in what you’re about to install.

The WebWise 'W'

WebWise Team

WebWise was first launched in 1998 and since then has helped people of all ages to learn about and love the internet.