A helper application is “an external program that may be called by a web browser to display content that the browser does not display on its own or by using a plug-in” Chapman (2009, p690). An example of this is when, in some browsers, a non standard web file type is requested for viewing, such as a compressed RAR file. As the browser is unable to read the file itself and if there are no plug-ins installed to deal with it, the browser passes the request to open to the system to a helper application. This request could be handled in two ways; the browser has an application listed to deal with the request and opens the file automatically or the system registry is invoked externally to find a suitable application.
A recent case where a helper application has moved into plug-in domain, certainly in my experience with Mozilla Firefox is Adobe Reader for PDF files. Upon requesting a PDF, Firefox, until a year ago was launching Adobe Reader outside the browser to view PDFs, however this has now moved to a plug-in so that the PDF can be read within the browser window. There is certainly a real difference between a plug-in and a helper application in that a plug-in can only be used from within the browser, whereas a helper application can usually be used in its own right (e.g. Real Media Player).
As a browser is based on the interpretation of web standards and yet such standards do not always cover the intended use of the content of the web, plug-ins and helper applications are extremely useful and important to the flexibility and usability of the web. As Timmons (2010) states regarding to better searching “there are some add-ons or extensions you should install to help with reporting” and by using plug-ins you can achieve a better personalised experience than a browser can provide to you as standard. This is the main advantage of allowing third parties to develop for your browser for despite there being a great deal of such applications to choose from, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
HTML5 shows promise as a replacement for many animation uses in the web browser however “the consortium of web-programmers and academics working on HTML5 don’t expect it to be finished before 2020” according to Campbell (2010), even though there are some HTML5 applications live, which is a long time in the computing industry. In my opinion therefore, much could have changed before we see such an implementation.
Campbell, M (2010), ‘New code blurs boundary between computers and web’, New Scientist, 206, 2758, p. 19, Computers & Applied Sciences Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 13 March 2011.
Chapman. C. & Chapman. J. (2009) Digital Multimedia (3rd Edition). Wiley.
Timmons, L (2010) ‘Plug-ins to make your searches more efficient’ 2010, Media, 14, 4, pp. 28-29, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 13 March 2011.