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Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Edge join forces to improve browser extensions

Customizing your browser should be easier and safer.

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- 02:56
Google Chrome web browser
James Martin/CNET

The teams behind the Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge browsers have banded together to improve extensions, the add-ons you can download to customize the software. That should mean your extensions will work better and come with a better security foundation to protect you from malware.

On Friday, the teams unveiled a discussion and development forum at the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, dedicated to developing standards for extensions. The forum, the WebExtensions Community Group, gives engineers a place to build a unified and more secure core foundation for extensions.

The group also hopes to make it easier for developers to write extensions because a shared standard will help bridge differences between browsers.

"We aim to identify common ground, bring [browsers] into closer alignment, and chart a course for future evolution," community group members said of their goals. There's not yet a public timeline for publishing a draft of the standard or building it into browsers.

Extensions are crucial to browsers on PCs. The bits of software can block ads, integrate with password managers, strip out code that tracks you on the internet and find coupons as you put items into your shopping cart. One extension lets users replace photos of Donald Trump with cats.

Google's Chrome is the most widely used browser in the world. But differences among browsers mean it's less likely that an extension developer will support other browsers. Standardization should align browsers to reduce developers' difficulties. There will still be differences among browsers, but the community group plans to ensure a common core of abilities.

The Chrome browser modernized extensions by adopting some of the same technologies, JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets, used to display web pages. Firefox and more recently Safari have followed Chrome's lead. Edge also tapped into Chrome's extension when Microsoft adopted Chrome's open-source Chromium technology.

The news comes on the eve of WWDC, the Apple developers conference that runs June 7-11. At WWDC in 2020, Apple announced it was embracing Chrome's extension approach in Safari, though significant differences in packaging extensions for Safari remain.

The idea of standardizing extension technology has been around for years. Opera, another browser maker, tried to unify extension technology when it adopted Chrome's extension approach in 2010.

One thing that won't change is how you get your extensions. Each browser maker has its own extensions download site, as well as procedures for vetting them. The discussion group won't address that topic.

But several other aspects of the technology are up for discussion, according to the browser extension group's charter. The group hopes to set programming interfaces that are compatible with today's extensions as much as possible, that don't slow website performance, that don't hurt privacy and that beef up security to "reduce the harm a compromised or malicious browser extensions can do."

Compatibility is the top priority on the list. "It should be relatively straightforward for developers to port extensions from one browser to another, and for browsers to support extensions on a variety of devices and operating systems," the group's charter says.