Comparison with the Add-on SDK

This article is a technical comparison of the Add-on SDK and WebExtensions. It's intended to help orient people who have an add-on that uses the SDK, and who are planning to port the add-on to WebExtensions.

If you're planning to port an overlay extension or a bootstrapped extension, see Comparison with XUL/XPCOM extensions.

The basic structure and concepts of the Add-on SDK are shared by WebExtensions. Both technologies include:

  • manifest files defining metadata for the add-on and some aspects of its behavior.
  • persistent scripts that get access to a set of privileged JavaScript APIs and that stay loaded for as long as the add-on itself is enabled.
  • content scripts that can be injected into web pages, and that can communicate with persistent scripts using an asynchronous messaging API.
  • the ability to add specific UI elements, such as buttons, to the browser. Buttons in turn can have popups that are defined using HTML, JavaScript, and CSS.
  • a command-line tool that developers can use to test their add-ons.

Beyond these broad similarities, there are a lot of differences in the details, and these are summarised in the following sections.

Manifest files

In both technologies you have a JSON manifest file in the add-on's root directory. In the SDK this is called "package.json", while in WebExtensions it's called "manifest.json". Both files contain basic metadata such as the add-on's name, description, and icons.

However, "manifest.json" includes many keys that define parts of the add-on's capabilities and behavior, which in the SDK are more often defined in code. For example:

Feature Add-on SDK WebExtensions
Content scripts matching URL patterns page-mod API content_scripts key
Toolbar buttons  ui/button/action API browser_action key
Access privileged APIs require() function permissions key

This makes developing WebExtensions more declarative and less programmatic, compared with SDK add-ons.

With the SDK you'll typically use jpm init to create a new package.json. WebExtensions don't have an equivalent of jpm init, so you'll probably write the manifest from scratch or copy and adapt an existing one.

Persistent scripts

Both technologies have the concept of persistent scripts that stay loaded for the add-on's lifetime, have access to privileged APIs, and can communicate with other parts of the add-on such as content scripts.

In the SDK this script is by default called "index.js", and it can load other scripts using the module loader.

In WebExtensions these scripts are called "background scripts". You can define a set of scripts using the background manifest key, and they will all be loaded into the same document, which is a hidden, auto-generated, blank HTML page. You can also define your own custom document using the background key.

An important difference is that background scripts get a window global, with all the DOM objects you'd expect to be present on a window. This makes writing WebExtensions more like writing web pages, with direct access to all the normal Web APIs like XMLHttpRequest or IndexedDB.

Also note that WebExtensions have a Content Security Policy applied to them. You can specify your own policy, but the default policy, among other things, disallows potentially unsafe practices such as the use of eval().

Learn more

Content scripts

In both the Add-on SDK and WebExtensions, persistent scripts can't directly access the content of web pages. Instead, add-ons can attach content scripts to web pages. These scripts:

  • do get direct access to web content
  • don't have access to privileged APIs
  • can communicate with the persistent scripts using a messaging API.

In both technologies, there are two ways to attach scripts: you can automatically attach a set of scripts to pages whose URL matches a given pattern, or you can programmatically attach a script to the page hosted by a given tab. The way to do this is different in each technology, though:

Operation Add-on SDK WebExtensions
Attach scripts to pages matching URL pattern page-mod API content_scripts key
Attach scripts to pages hosted by a tab tab.attach() tabs.executeScript()

The match patterns used for URLs are different:

In both technologies you can pass options to control when the script runs and whether it will be attached to subframes. WebExtensions don't include an equivalent of contentScriptOptions, though.

In both technologies, content scripts can communicate with persistent scripts using an asynchronous messaging API:

Operation Add-on SDK WebExtensions
Send message port.emit() runtime.sendMessage() / tabs.sendMessage()
Receive message port.on() runtime.onMessage

In both cases, content scripts can communicate with scripts loaded by the page using window.postMessage and window.addEventListener.

In both technologies, have access to the page they're injected into, but get "a clean view of the DOM", meaning that they don't get to see modifications made to the DOM by scripts loaded by the page.

To pass configuration options to a content script instead of defining values on self.options from the add-on logic, you would either have to send those via messaging or store them in storage.local.

In the SDK, content scripts can share objects with page scripts, using techniques like unsafeWindow and createObjectIn. The unsafeWindow is available via the wrappedJSObject instead. All the export helper functions are available, too.

Learn more

UI elements

Both technologies provide APIs to create a UI for your add-on. UI options for WebExtensions are more limited.

UI element Add-on SDK WebExtensions
Button ui/button/action browser_action / page_action
Toggle button ui/button/toggle browser_action / page_action
Toolbar ui/toolbar None
Sidebar ui/sidebar None
Panel panel browser_action / page_action popup
Context menu context-menu contextMenus

Panels and popups

Panels and popups are both transient dialogs specified using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Unlike panels, popups are always attached to a button (either a browser action or a page action) and can't be displayed programmatically: they are only shown when the user clicks the button.

Also unlike panels, popup scripts get access to all the same APIs that background scripts do. They can even get direct access to the background page, via runtime.getBackgroundPage().

Settings

The Add-on SDK and WebExtensions both have some support for settings (sometimes also called options or preferences).

With the SDK you can define preferences using a preferences key in package.json. The user can see and change these preferences in the add-on's entry in the Add-ons Manager. The add-on in turn can listen for changes using the simple-prefs API.

With WebExtensions you have to implement your own UI for presenting settings, and your own code for persisting them. You do this by writing an HTML file that presents the settings UI, which can include a script for persisting the settings. The script gets access to all the WebExtensions APIs, and it's generally expected that you should use the storage API to persist settings.

You then assign the HTML file's URL to the options_ui key in manifest.json. Your settings page then appears in the add-on's entry in the Add-ons Manager.

Note that WebExtensions does not give you access to the browser's own preferences (that is, the preferences exposed in the SDK by preferences/service).

Learn more

Internationalization

The Add-on SDK and WebExtensions both include tools for localizing user-visible text. They offer mostly similar functionality:

Feature Add-on SDK WebExtensions
Strings in add-on scripts Yes Yes
Strings in content scripts No Yes
Strings in HTML Yes No
Strings in CSS No Yes
Title & description Yes Yes
Plural forms Yes No
Placeholders Yes Yes

In both systems, you supply localized strings as a collection of files, one for each locale.

To retrieve localized strings in add-on code, there's a JavaScript API - l10n in the SDK and i18n in WebExtensions - that returns a localized string given an ID.

WebExtensions don't have direct support for localizing strings appearing in HTML, so you have to do this yourself, using JavaScript to retrieve localized strings and to replace the HTML with the localized version.

Learn more

Command-line tool

The Add-on SDK comes with a command-line tool, jpm, that you can use for testing and packaging add-ons. There's an equivalent tool for WebExtensions, called web-ext. web-ext doesn't yet support all the same commands that jpm does, but it has the basics: run, build, and sign.

It's also now possible to install (and reload) SDK add-ons and WebExtensions in Firefox from their source directory, without needing to package them as an XPI. See Temporary Installation in Firefox.

Learn more

JavaScript APIs

In both the SDK and WebExtensions, the main power of the add-on comes from a set of dedicated JavaScript APIs. For most of the SDK high-level APIs, there is a WebExtensions equivalent.

One big limitation of WebExtensions compared with the SDK is that SDK add-ons can use require("chrome") to get access to the full range of XPCOM APIs in Firefox. This is not possible in WebExtensions.

To access privileged APIs in the SDK, you use require():

var tabs = require("sdk/tabs");
tabs.open("https://developer.mozilla.org/");

In WebExtensions most APIs are made available already, with no need to import them:

chrome.tabs.create({
  "url": "https://developer.mozilla.org/"
});

For some WebExtension APIs, you need to ask permission first, using the permissions manifest.json key. In the example below, WebExtensions need to ask for the "tabs" permission if they want access to the tab's URL:

manifest.json:

...

"permissions": [
    "tabs"
  ]

...

background script:

function logUrl(tabs) {
 console.log(tabs[0].url);
}

chrome.tabs.query(
  {active: true, currentWindow: true},
  logUrl
);

Add-on SDK => WebExtensions

The tables in this section list every SDK API and describe what the equivalent WebExtensions API would be, if there is one implemented in the current Developer Edition.

The first table covers high-level SDK APIs, the second covers low-level APIs.

High-level APIs

Add-on SDK WebExtensions
addon-page Use tabs.create() to load pages packaged with your add-on into normal browser tabs.
base64 window.atob() and btoa()
clipboard document.execCommand without using select() and similar in the background page.
 context-menu contextMenus
hotkeys commands
indexed-db window.indexedDB
l10n i18n
notifications notifications
page-mod content_scripts
page-worker Use the background page, or load remote iframes into the background page.
panel See UI elements above.
passwords None
private-browsing Tab.incognito and Window.incognito.
querystring window.URLSearchParams
request window.fetch or window.XMLHttpRequest
selection Use a content script that sends the selection data to the add-on.
self runtime.getManifest() and extension.getURL() for data.url()
simple-prefs storage and options_ui
simple-storage storage
system Partly provided by runtime.
tabs tabs
timers alarms
ui See UI elements above.
url window.URL
widget None
windows windows

Low-level APIs

Add-on SDK WebExtensions
/loader None
chrome None
console/plain-text None
console/traceback None
content/content None
content/loader None
content/mod None
content/symbiont None
content/worker None
core/heritage None
core/namespace None
core/promise Promise
dev/panel None
event/core None
event/target None
frame/hidden-frame None
frame/utils None
fs/path None
io/byte-streams None
io/file None
io/text-streams None
lang/functional None
lang/type None
loader/cuddlefish None
loader/sandbox None
net/url None
net/xhr window.fetch or window.XMLHttpRequest
places/bookmarks bookmarks
places/favicon None
places/history history
platform/xpcom None
preferences/event-target None
preferences/service None
remote/child None
remote/parent None
stylesheet/style None
stylesheet/utils None
system/child_process runtime.connectNative
system/environment None
system/events None
system/runtime None
system/xul-app None
tabs/utils None
ui/button/action browser_action / page_action
ui/button/toggle browser_action / page_action
ui/frame None
ui/id None
ui/sidebar None
ui/toolbar None
util/array None
util/collection None
util/deprecate None
util/list None
util/match-pattern None
util/object None
util/uuid None
window/utils None

 

Document Tags and Contributors

 Contributors to this page: freaktechnik, Rob W, wbamberg
 Last updated by: freaktechnik,