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7/13/2009
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The Best Firefox Extensions: Working With Text

Since Firefox 3.5 is now available, it's a good time to revisit the secret of this open-source Web browser's success: its flexibility.

Since Firefox 3.5 is now available, it's a good time to revisit the secret of this open-source Web browser's success: its flexibility.Every Web browser touts its own unique advantages. Google Chrome, for example, claims the best page-loading performance, while Internet Explorer 8 boasts some compelling management features for large companies. And fans of the Opera browser point to the fact that many key innovations, including tabbed browsing, got their start here.

All of these claims are debatable, depending upon whom you ask and how one tests them. As far as I'm concerned, however, Firefox offers a feature that is so powerful and so innovative that it is beyond debate: its extensions.

Firefox was built from the ground up to support user-contributed extensions and themes. Today, thousands of Firefox extensions allow users to customize their online experience in every conceivable way. In fact, the biggest problem with the Firefox extension community may be its sheer diversity; once one gets past the most popular extensions (such as the ubiquitous AdBlock Plus), it can be hard to sort through thousands of additional options.

My goal here is to find and highlight the best small-business Firefox extensions. I'll organize them (loosely) by category, briefly describe what they do, and add my own thoughts about which ones really stand out fro the pack. It's a task that will take quite a while to complete, so stay tuned as I revisit this topic during the days and weeks to come.

Today, let's start with a key category of Firefox extensions: those that help users master the deceptively complex task of working with online text.

Three Time-Saving Text Extensions

Many of the best Firefox extensions do one thing -- and they do it very well. That is certainly true of these three extensions, each of which focuses on specific issues that people who work with text online frequently encounter. The tasks they perform may not be rocket science, but they certainly are useful.

Please be aware that in a couple of cases, the versions of these extensions published on the official Mozilla Web site are not yet compatible with Firefox 3.5. For now, however, compatible versions are available from other reputable sources, as noted below.

- Copy Plain Text: Copying text from a formatted Web page to a text editor or some other application can be a colossal pain in the butt. Copy Plain Text solves this small but annoying problem by stripping all formatting from the selected text.

Once it's installed, a "copy as plain text" option will appear in the context menu for selected text:

Some other helpful options include the ability to make copying as plain text the default right-click/copy action, and to remove extraneous spaces or empty lines from copied text.

(Note: The version of Copy Plain Text currently available at the official Mozilla extensions download site is not yet compatible with Firefox 3.5. This should be fixed soon, but in the meantime, another developer has created a FF 3.5 compatible -- and completely safe -- version that you can download here.)

- CoLT. This extension's name stands for "Copy Linked Text." Like Copy Plain Text, it solves a minor but annoying problem: Copying the text in a link without having to select the text (and possibly clicking the link accidentally).

But CoLT adds a few interesting twists. First, it modifies the Firefox context menu so that right-clicking on a link allows the user either to copy only the link text or to copy both the text and the underlying URL:

For advanced users, CoLT offers additional custom-formatting features that are very useful for bloggers, employees working on a wiki, or Web developers. If you don't need anything but the basics, however, CoLT keeps all of this out of sight, making it easy to give Firefox users the best of both worlds: power and simplicity.

- AutoCopy. Here is another Firefox extension that is brilliant in its simplicity. Simply select copy on a Web page, and AutoCopy will save it to the clipboard automatically -- or, if you prefer, use it to change the keyboard shortcut used to copy selected text. If you do a lot of online research or writing, it's the sort of feature that can save a lot of time and effort. A number of user-configured options make AutoCopy even more powerful. Want to add a built-in delay so that you have the option of using the context menu rather than the autocopy feature? No problem -- and you can set the length of the delay. Want AutoCopy to work with text inside form boxes? That's easy, too.

In fact, AutoCopy even works seamlessly with Copy Plain Text. Just install both extensions, click the "Copy Plain Text" box in the AutoCopy options list, and you're ready to go.

(Note: Although the official Mozilla page for this extension has not yet been updated for compatibility with FF 3.5, the version available on the developer's Web site is fully compatible.)

Stay tuned! Next time I return to this topic, I'll look at a number of Firefox extensions that help your small business make the most out of some popular social-networking services.

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