Chrome Extensions and Hackathons

Why simpler is better.

So – what exactly is a Chrome Extension?

A Chrome Extension is a small app that you can slap on top of Google’s Chrome browser. From there, it’ll perform some task that Chrome itself can’t — be it giving you notifications for some third party service, blocking ads, or pretty much anything else. Extensions are generally pretty small, but can do some awesome things. You’ve probably seen or used a few of the more popular one – AdBlock, Motorola Connect (if you’re of the Android inclination), Push Bullet, Stay Focused, etc. And if you haven’t, you’re missing out! Chrome is only as good as you make it.

And I care because…?

Aside from offering you great additions to Chrome, extensions make great hackathon projects. You can work with a very special type of data in a way that many projects can’t. On top of that, some of the legwork is already done for you since the extension runs on top of Chrome – no hosting, no domain names, and instant distribution. While these perks do require some special tasks up front (writing a manifest file to secure your extension’s permissions, for example), they’re relatively trivial and won’t slow you down much. More importantly, they’ll secure you access to special data that Chrome Extensions are privileged enough to have access to.

Okay, so that’s kinda cool. But what can I actually do?

Happily enough, almost everything that you can with a regular web app – AJAX calls, API usage, OAuth, Google Analytics, the works. So, while an extension may not be the place to implement your next killer consumer webapp (or who knows, maybe it is…) it probably won’t hold you back during a 36-hour sprint to get something up and running.

That didn’t answer my question. Really now, what can I do?

Fine, fine. When it comes down to it, the awesomeness of the Chrome Extension fits into 2 broad categories.

1. You can be meta. SO META.

Chrome Extensions run apart from the site that you’re currently on. That means you can interact with a web site, and your user, in a way that you normally can’t. This ranges from aggregating data across sites to automating work on a site (For example, automatically filling out forms. Legally, of course.) In other words, you’re on a whole other level of fun. Data for a Chrome extension persists across browsing, so it can be accessed any time. Think about saving articles to read, or taking notes cross-site, or tracking your web browsing to figure out exactly how much time you waste on facebook daily. You’re sitting above the web sites – have fun with it!

2. You can make Chrome work for you

Little things in Chrome that annoy the heck out of you, or areas you think could be tweaked in some small way, can all be fixed with Chrome Extensions. Hooking into Chrome means you can customize it as you see fit, without having to rewrite an entire browser from scratch. Think about customizing your YouTube experience, or changing what Chrome gives you every time you open a new tab. You’re in control, so reimagine things to suit your needs!

I’m still not convinced that Chrome Extensions are the greatest thing since sliced bread. And by the way, those ideas you listed already exist!

Heck yeah they do – that’s the point! People have done these things because they’re worthwhile and awesome. And, while I’m showing you things that already exist, check out Lifehack’s list of 100 Chrome Extensions you should install, or the Chrome store itself’s top extensions. If those don’t convince you to try an Extension hack at your next hackathon, then I don’t know what will. Except for maybe this:

And…that’s all I’ve got.

Ideas, questions, comments, issues? Got a killer Extension you’ve built, or would like to see built? Let us know in the comments!

Stanford University's premier hackathon. February 12th-14th 2021.

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