The Surprisingly Useful Browser Extension

When I first started at my first job out of college, in addition to watching a lot of instructional videos I had to read a lot. Much of the information I had to read was on the company’s internal wiki, and I felt like I was spending hours and hours just staring at the screen reading black text on a white background.

Although much of my life is spent in front of a computer screen, something about staring at MediaWiki all day left my eyes feeling tired and almost dazzled.

This was about the time that people first started customizing things like web browsers to use what is now called dark mode and available nearly everywhere. Not only does white text on a black background send less light into your eyeballs, it also at least feels easier to read.

So I switched my web browser to use white text on a black background. It was great…when it worked. But a lot of websites didn’t work very well with those settings, forcing me to go into my settings and switch back and forth a lot. I found myself wishing I had a button I could click that would switch between light mode and dark mode.

“Well,” thought I, “I’m a computer programmer using a web browser that supports extensions, so why can’t I make this happen?”

It turned out to be pretty easy. I wrote a fairly minimal UI around it and installed it in Firefox. And it worked pretty well! I could switch the color schemes with the click of a button.

I actually got pretty into it. I customized it so that the user could define two separate color schemes rather than just forcing everyone to choose either white-on-black or black-on-white. I added a hotkey. I cleaned up the code a bit. And after doing so, I even submitted it to the official Mozilla add-on repository. It got accepted! I called it Color Toggle, using my powers of imaginative naming that I’m so known for.

For a while, that was it. I told a few friends about it, and they used it too. It had maybe a couple of dozen downloads. I would occasionally update it, either to add a feature or to fix an incompatibility when Mozilla updated Firefox, but it mostly just worked.

One day, I got an email from someone thanking me for writing Color Toggle. I was blown away. Someone I had never met was using my thing, and he liked it! I replied, thanking him for writing and telling him how glad I was that he found my little program useful.

Then, something very surprising happened. I got an email from someone who wanted to translate my extension into different languages. I had people volunteering to translate Color Toggle into Dutch and Simplified Chinese! I was absolutely floored.

I went to the add-ons site and found that tens of thousands of people had downloaded my extension! And many of them gave it a very positive review.

What I didn’t realize or expect was that this little browser extension I wrote to help prevent eyestrain was extremely useful for people who are visually impaired. It allowed them at the click of a button to switch to a high-contrast color scheme that they could read much easier. But then when they came to a website that didn’t work with their color scheme, they could just click a button to change it back.

It turned out there were communities of visually impaired people around the world who would tell each other about my browser extension and how it enabled them to use the Web much more easily and comfortably!

By this point, I wasn’t reading wiki pages all day and in fact rarely used the extension myself anymore. But I still developed and maintained it as a service to my users. In fact, I felt a bit guilty that I didn’t have more time to devote to it.

But then came The Change.

Mozilla decided that they weren’t going to support their old extension model anymore. They were going to only support a new kind of extension which was much less powerful. Unfortunately, Color Toggle didn’t really work with the new extension model. I tried, but I just couldn’t make it happen. I even contacted the Mozilla developers and told them that it was an accessibility issue and it would affect tens of thousands of visually-impaired users, but they didn’t seem to care.

Many users wrote to me personally asking if there was anything I could do. I responded to each one individually, apologizing and explaining that there wasn’t. Everyone was really understanding.

The code is still on GitHub, but of course it’s only a curiosity now, an historical relic.

Fortunately, there is a happy ending: people smarter than I am have since created similar extensions for both Firefox and Chrome. This is the best ending for everyone, since even before The Change I didn’t really have the time or energy to work on Color Toggle as much as I felt it deserved. Hopefully the creators of the new extensions have more time to make sure it’s up to date and functional.

It’s weird how these events form little blips in our lives. Sometimes I think back and marvel at how, at one point in my life, I had written the biggest and most internationally-popular browser extension for switching color profiles. Such a random, little thing. I hope in some way it made some peoples’ browsing experience better!

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