Plugin technology : a beauty that often turns nasty

Plugin technology is a universal driver for widespread adoption, dizzying success at times, even revolutions! But plugin technology is often the source of dreadful clumsiness and that utterly leads to the demise of the very thing it made popular in the first place. What goes around comes around. Sometimes.

I’m using the term plugin here loosely to refer to anything that can be called plugin, addon, extension, application or appliance. very ambitious, i admit. Something suports plugin if it’s possible to extend it beyond its original shape, content, purpose or use. If it is pluggable then someone will put it to some uses well beyond what the inventor or creator had originally anticipated. As i was analysing some recurring issues around me i came to this realisation. One day you go like “This is superbe! I can see lots of ways to make this better…” then some time later you find yourself thinking “Oh crap! I’m sick of this, i need something more basic, that just does such and such (instead of trying to be all things for all people)“.

Some examples of plugin enabled technology that have changed our world: human language, electricity, telephony, transportation (road, rail, air), television, cable television, Microsoft Windows Operating System, Eclipse IDE, Firefox web browser, i could carry on. When i talk about plugin for human language I’m thinking of dialects and other specialised uses of the language that deviate from its core elements. I must have confused my reader at this point, but think about it carefully. One can argue if spoken language can be called a technology. Obviously electricity and telephony continue to do wonders for us, but they have dark sides too.

A piece of technology becomes exciting if it has some form of plugin architecture. For better or for worse, everybody want a piece of the action, no one wants to be left behind. After all the innovators’ club is very exclusive with few members, the very large majority simply tag along and try to make the most of it, Rabelais’ sheep of panurge come to mind. But put these wonderful plugin technology in the hands of the masses, it won’t be long before the whole thing is totally messed up. If you take out the part that bolted-on plugins play in a technology failure, you will find that it is very significant.

Apple Computer must have realised this early, that could explain some of their policies. Recently for example when they announced the iPhone and said at the sime time that it won’t support third-party software. In this case any third-party software is a pluggable component for the iPhone, likely to break the stability and harmony of the device even at launch. No amount of testing would eliminate such risks, examples abound to support this hypothesis.

Some examples of plugin technology turned nasty: Microsoft Windows famous security vulnerabilities, pluggable softwares getting bloated to the point of irrelevance (Netscape web browser, Firefox more recently).

This topic is so rich that it could fill volumes after volumes. It’s really the story of how we learn (or don’t really learn from mistakes).

Look around you for examples of plugin technology turned nasty, you could be surprised.

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