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Plugging Into Plug-Ins

While surfing the Internet you may, on occasion, encounter a page that won't load properly or that only displays a portion -- sometimes referred to in technical parlance as a "smidge" -- of its content. This may be due to the fact that your computer doesn't have the proper software installed to view animated cartoons, groovy Britney Spears' videos, not to mention scores of delightful of pop-up ads that can make the Internet such a heartwarming experience.

This particular type of software, which includes popular programs such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, RealPlayer, Shockwave and others, is referred to as plug-in software. A plug-in, sometimes referred to as a helper application, is simply a small software program that adds features to other software programs. The following are some of the most popular plug-in programs, their respective functions and where to obtain them:

Adobe Acrobat Reader
The Adobe Acrobat Reader, downloadable for free, allows you to view and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files plus fill out and submit PDF forms online. An expanded version of Acrobat Reader for Windows offers additional capabilities, including support for the visually impaired. The full version of Acrobat, available for purchase from the site, provides all the features of the Acrobat Reader, plus lets you create your own PDF files or convert any document to PDF format.

Microsoft's DirectX is a group of technologies designed for running multimedia, audio, graphics, video, and 3-D animation on Windows-based computers. This site focuses on DirectX audio plug-ins and provides an extensive list sorted alphabetically by manufacturer or by effects produced by the plug-in.

Macromedia Flash Player
The Macromedia Flash Player is a very popular multimedia player installed in many browsers and on most computers. It is included with Windows 98 and higher, Netscape Navigator, Macintosh operating systems, America Online, WebTV (MSN-TV), and several others. The Flash Player is also included with any download of the Macromedia Shockwave Player (see below). The Macromedia Flash Player displays certain software program multimedia presentations, high-impact (what we used to call "mind-blowing") Web site user interfaces, and interactive online advertising (now we know who to thank for that). If for some reason you don't have the Flash Player, you can download it from this site for free. You'll also find links to demonstrations, a FAQ section and other Macromedia products.

Net2Phone CommCenter is software that allows you to place low-cost phone calls from your computer to a telephone or another computer. Sound is still a bit on the tinny side, but the technology is getting better all the time. Download the software for free and be sure to check out the calling rates. I can finally call Sweden for approximately .06 per minute. "Long time no talk, Uncle Sven." It's a dream come true.

Netscape Plug-in Directory
If you're a Netscape user, check out the What's New section to download a variety of regularly updated applications. The Plug-in Directory allows you to browse through all of the plug-ins currently available, or, when you encounter a Web site that requires a specific plug-in, Netscape's Plug-in Finder will automatically invite you to download the plug-in you need. Netscape's Plug-in Search Engine is helpful for tracking down software anywhere on the Internet by entering the platform you're using (e.g. Windows 95, 98, etc.), or the file extension type you're interested in (.wav, .mpeg, .MP3).

Plug-in Head
Though it sounds like the kind of name that might torment a young geekster, at the Plug-in Head Web site you'll find lots of information related to Adobe PhotoShop and digital graphics programs in general. Help yourself to some shareware from the Plug-ins section and check out the Tips page for helpful -- er, um, well, tips.

Plug-in Modules (32 bit)
A vast selection of 32-bit plug-ins divided into several categories, including a look ahead at future plug-ins.

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This site offers Netscape, Internet Explorer, and PhotoShop plug-ins available for download. Visitors can also register for free e-mail notification of browser and PhotoShop news plus special offerings.

Quicktime Player
The Apple Quicktime Player and related products, play and permit viewing of movies in digital format. Use the Quicktime Player for viewing movie clip files with .mov, .jpg, .gif, .pict, .mpg, .avi extensions, and AIFF Audio, AU Audio, SGI Images, Sound Designer files.

RealPlayer offers free and paid versions of its popular RealPlayer series, so read the small print when you get to the site. RealPlayer offers excellent streaming audio and video quality over the Internet, plus direct access to more than 3,200 Internet radio stations. The free RealPlayer Basic should be more than adequate for most users, though it does not offer all of the advanced features of the paid versions RealPlayer, so check out the specs and features of each. Bonus hint: Try the freebie version first; you can always upgrade later.

Shockwave by Macromedia
Macromedia's Shockwave Player is the industry's standard for "rich-media" content viewing. Download it for free from this site, then click
HERE to see what you've been missing. High-end animation, graphics, games, multimedia product presentations, clowns, acrobats, mimes, and more. What's not to like?

The Plug-in Site
Image and video-related plug-ins of all types: filters, texture effects, frames, freeware and shareware programs, product reviews, a gallery, and more. If you're new to the world of PhotoShop and related plug-ins, click HERE to access "Plug-in Essentials" by Howard Heim.

Winamp is an audio player that allows you to play music or any other recorded sound on your Windows computer. Winamp offers a number of popular plug-ins for creating visual effects that synchronize with the music. Think "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." It also allows the look of its interface to be customized through the use of skins -- graphics that let you change the appearance of the dials and buttons on Winamp. Though Winamp is most popular for the MP3 file format, it also supports a number of other formats. You can download the latest version of Winamp for free.

Installing Plug-ins

Now that you're plugged into plug-ins, you may be thinking that this downloading and installing stuff sounds like something that requires a degree in computer sciences. Well, have no fear! As my neurosurgeon used to say, "This ain't neurosurgery." If you need a plug-in, you'll receive a message on your computer screen advising you of your plug-in deficiency, along with the invitation, "Get the plug-in now?" All you have to do is click the link displayed where you can then download and install the plug-in. You'll be escorted through the painless process by a friendly, digitally compassionate installation wizard.

Trust me, you'll feel very high-tech after installing your first plug-in, so be sure to take some time to savor your accomplishment and bask in the glow of the moment.

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