What is the difference between a plugin and an add-on?

If the aim is to equip a system, an app or a video game with an extension, then there are two terms “plug-in” and “add-on” for the corresponding additional modules. These are often used interchangeably with each other. But in addition to the common categorization as additional content, are there also features that differentiate them? What is the difference between a plugin and an add-on? I will answer this question for you in this guide.

What is the difference between plugin and add-on? Or do both terms for system and app extensions describe the same thing? You can find all the information here.
What is the difference between plugin and add-on? Or do both terms for system and app extensions describe the same thing? You can find all the information here.

What is a plugin?

A plug-in, or plugin, is a software component that is integrated into larger software to expand or customize its functionality. Plugins are developed by both the app providers and often by third parties. They can be offered for a variety of applications, including web browsers, content management systems, graphics software, video or audio editing apps, and many more. You can integrate new tools, expand the interface, add convenient functions, provide codecs and perform other tasks. Web browser ad blockers are also plug-ins.

When it comes to extensions for its Affinity programs, Serif speaks of plugins.
When it comes to extensions for its Affinity programs, Serif speaks of plugins.

What is an add-on?

Unlike plugins, “add-on” is often used as an umbrella term that encompasses different types of extensions or additional modules. An add-on can be, for example, a plug-in, an external extension, a theme, a script or another type of software component that complements or extends the functionality of the main software. The meaning of the term add-on comes into play especially with themes and skins, because these are added to the program or created as a new interface. While the sub-term plug-in stands for a plugged-in functional module.

Mozilla speaks of add-ons when it comes to extensions to the Firefox browser.
Mozilla speaks of add-ons when it comes to extensions to the Firefox browser.

The difference between plugin and add-on

And that is the big difference, even if it is no longer so important today. An add-on, even though it is now an umbrella term that includes plug-ins, was actually just a small, sometimes purely cosmetic extension of a piece of software. Although the customization of systems and apps is no longer as widespread today as it was in the 2000s, skins and themes are known for numerous offers - from Windows XP to its media player to third-party apps such as Winamp or ICQ. Their visual adjustments were add-ons. The unspeakable search bars for Browser were plugins.

The distinction between add-on (e.g. as a skin or theme) and plugin (as a pure functional extension) basically no longer exists. The picture shows a skin for Windows Media Player, a classic add-on.
The distinction between add-on (e.g. as a skin or theme) and plugin (as a pure functional extension) basically no longer exists. The picture shows a skin for Windows Media Player, a classic add-on.

Synonymous use of the two terms

In some web browsers and other programs, as well as in the world of operating systems and their apps in general, there is hardly any distinction between plugins and add-ons. Sometimes additional content and additional functions are referred to as one, but sometimes as the other. In some offers, both terms are even omitted completely. Apple refers to extensions for the Safari browser as “extensions” or in English as “extensions”. Google has also largely adopted this for its Chrome browser.

Instead of specifying one of the terms, some software providers, such as Apple, do not use either of them. Instead, “expansion” is used as an umbrella term.
Instead of specifying one of the terms, some software providers, such as Apple, do not use either of them. Instead, “expansion” is used as an umbrella term.

How do you feel about these terms? Do you make a difference, do you use both terms interchangeably or do you not use them at all? Feel free to leave a comment :)

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