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Mozilla Proposes Search-Based Extension Distribution

With new HTML tags for browser extensions, Mozilla believes Web site owners can promote wider use of add-on software.

In discussing the features likely to be found in the forthcoming Firefox 4, Mozilla's Mike Beltzner, director of Firefox, stressed user the importance of making sure that users can control their data and browsing experience.

Mozilla is out of step with the industry in giving control to the user. The trend is to give users less control, to manage the experience for them, as Apple does with its iPhone, iPod, and iPad devices. Mobile is all about less (control) is more (enjoyment).

Nonetheless, siding with the user may be Mozilla's best chance to maintain its momentum, now that Google's Chrome browser is challenging Firefox as the open source Web browser best loved by power users.

Hoping to capitalize on Firefox's extensibility, Mozilla wants to make browser customization options more apparent to users and easier to access.

In a blog post on Wednesday, Daniel Buchner, a product manager at Mozilla, proposed the development of a new HTML tag that could be used to make browser extensions more visible to search engines.

"Using the established, successful content delivery model of the Web crawler, we could turn search engines into powerful mechanisms for extension discovery," he wrote. "If this were the case, the visibility of extensions would swell beyond any current measure of distribution."

The diagram provided by Buchner suggests that users would see browser extension links in search result that could be used to install extensions directly. This would do away with the friction, so to speak, of the current add-on experience, which often requires several clicks before installation is complete.

It's an idea that's likely to appeal to Google and other search engines because search results would become even more useful to users. It might also find favor with Google because it would blur the boundary between search index and app store. And finally, it would underscore the limitations of the Web on the Apple's mobile devices, where the company's Safari browser remains closed to user modification or extension.

Mozilla meanwhile would benefit as more people customized Firefox. Users would be more reluctant to abandon Firefox due to their investment in customization. Extensions, if installed by enough users, could become Mozilla's equivalent of iPhone apps -- software that enhances the value and experience of the ecosystem.

The need for greater extension visibility becomes clear if you consider that only about one-third of Firefox users customize their browser. Clearly, Mozilla could do more to encourage users to exercise the control it's offering.

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