How to extend the new Add-ons Manager (or how I built a simple greasemonkey clone in an evening)

One of the goals of the new add-ons manager API was to create something that was itself extensible. A couple of times in the past we’ve had to add new types of add-ons to the UI like Plugins and Personas. In both cases squeezing them into the UI was something of a kludge involving a bunch of custom code for each case. We already have a number of new types of add-ons that we want to add, things like search plugins which are currently managed by their own custom UI.

To help simplify this the API is largely type-agnostic. Internally it uses a number of so-called add-on “providers”, each of which may make information about add-ons available. Each provider is basically a JavaScript object with functions defined that the API can call to ask for information about add-ons that the provider knows about. The provider then just has to pass back JavaScript objects to represent each add-on. Each of these must have at minimum a set of required properties and functions and may also include a set of optional properties. The full set is defined in the API documentation.

With this design the user interface doesn’t need to care about implementation details of any of the providers, how they store their data or what exactly their add-ons are and do. Because each gives objects that obeys the same interface it can just display and manipulate them.

To try to show this all off I recently put together a small demo extension for the Mozilla Summit that registers a new type of add-on to be displayed in the main add-ons manager. This is a short overview of some of the highlights and I’ll make the code available for people to look at and take examples from. The add-on was a basic implementation of Greasemonkey allowing user scripts to be installed, managed through the add-ons manager and do it all as a restartless add-on.

Making a restartless add-on

Add-ons don’t have to be developed with Jetpack to make them restartless, although the Jetpack SDK certainly makes things easier on you, at the expense of less access to the internals of the platform.

The first thing to learn about making a restartless add-on is that you can forget about using XUL overlays or registering XPCOM components to be called at startup. Neither are supported at the moment, and maybe never will. Instead you have to provide a bootstrap script. This is a simple “bootstrap.js” file in the root of the extension that should include a “startup” and “shutdown” function. These are called whenever Firefox wants to start or stop your add-on either because the application is starting up or shutting down or the add-on is being enabled or disabled. You can also provide “install” and “uninstall” methods to be notified of those cases but that is probably unnecessary in most cases.

At startup the demo extension does some basic things. It registers for some observer notifications, registers a new add-on provider (I’ll talk more about that below) and does a little work to include itself in the add-ons manager UI (again, see below).

The rule is this. Anything your add-on does after being started must be undone by the shutdown function. The shutdown function often ends up being the inverse of startup, here it removes observer notification registrations, unregisters the add-on provider and removes itself from the UI. It also shuts down a database if it was opened.

Implementing a new provider

This extension implements probably the simplest possible provider. As far as the API goes all it supports is requesting a list of add-ons by type or a single add-on by ID. These functions pass add-on objects to the callbacks. For this add-on these objects are held in a database so that code does some fairy uninteresting (and horribly synchronous) sql queries and generates objects that the API expects.

Adding new types to the UI

Perhaps the hardest part of this extension is getting the new type of add-on to display in the UI. Unfortunately one thing that we haven’t implemented so far is any kind of auto-discovery of add-on types. Instead the UI works from a mostly hardcoded list. This is something that we think it would be nice to change but at the moment it seems unlikely that we wiull get time to before Firefox 4, unless someone wants to volunteer to do some of the work.

The demo extension works around this restriction by inserting some elements into the add-ons manager window whenever it detects it opening. In particular it adds an item to the category list with a value attribute “addons://list/user-script”. The add-ons manager UI uses this kind of custom URL to decide what to display when a category is selected. In this case it means displaying the normal list view (that plugins and extensions currently use) and to ask the API for add-ons of the type “user-script”. There is also some code there that overrides the normal string bundle that the manager uses to localize the text in the UI to allow adding in some additional strings. The code I am showing is of course badly written in that it is hardcoded and so could not be localized, please forgive me for cutting corners with the demo.

That is basically all that is needed to have the UI work to display the new add-ons from the registered provider however the demo also throws in some style rules to pretty things up with a custom icon

Notifying the UI of changes

When you implement your own provider you have to be sure to send out appropriate notifications whenever changes to the add-ons you manager happen so that any UI can update accordingly. I won’t go into too much detail here, hopefully the AddonListener and InstallListener API covers the events you need to know about enough. You can see the script database send out some of these notifications.

Get the full code

This has been a very short overview of the highlights of this demo, hopefully enough for the interested to pick up the code and make use of it themselves. The full source of the extension is available from the mercurial repository. Right now I wouldn’t really release this as an extension. As I’ve mentioned it uses synchronous sql queries (on every page load no less!) and cannot be localized. These things can be fixed but this was just made as a demo in basically one evening to show off the sorts of things that are possible with the new add-ons manager.

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