Thursday, June 14, 2007

widget, widget, widget

Widgets have been making a lot of noise recently. Impressive for a word that traditionally was used in reference to a hypothetical product. Only in the last twenty years or so did widgets graduate slightly in meaning when used to refer to software user interface controls. In the last several years their meaning has suddenly solidified. At least in the world of software, and particularly the web. Widgets can be found everywhere from desktops to websites. They are developed by hobbyists for fun as well as professional developers in support of well orchestrated advertising and brand campaigns. Today’s widget is no longer hypothetical.

The widget still enjoys a broad definition even as it has become more grounded. In the last six months widgets have been caught in the act of counting page visits, displaying RSS feeds, keeping track of to-do lists, playing Sudoku, reading email, and even placing a phone call or two. The widget appears to be defined more by its form factor, small, and location, a widget environment, than its' specific functionality.

Given this broad functionality, however, there seem to be three primary types of widgets:

Embedded Widgets
The most popular widgets are embedded on an existing web page. Whether it is a personal page a la myspace/facebook (myspacebook?) or a corporate site, there appears to be an endless array of widgets from varying sources that can be embedded on a web page by cut and pasting some HTML. Heavy on the fun and branding, light on the back-end functionality.

Webtop Widgets
These are web based widgets found on a page that contains a personal collection of widgets. Netvibes is one example of a "personal home page" based on widgets. Users place selected widgets on a page and then configure them. The widgets are provided by the website or developers that have worked with the specific website widget API.More functionality than their embedded counterparts, less media play.

Desktop Widgets
Finally, there is the desktop widget provided by Yahoo! Konfabulator, Google Gadgets, Apple Dashboard, and now Microsoft. These widgets are nearly identical in terms of the functionality you would find on webtop widgets, although they are generally much easier on the eyes. In some cases they enjoy a little more functionality, like integrating with desktop applications, because they are operating on the desktop. I find these to be on the extreme end of offering the most functionality while being right in the middle in terms of branding interjection.

There is a lot of energy pouring into the widget world across the different types of widgets. This is creating opportunity as our interaction with widgets takes on new meaning. Here are some of the questions I have encountered while trying to navigate these widget waters.

- Where are widgets going in the long term? Trendy branding tool or a new form factor for computing?

- How will widget functionality evolve? Information couriers or de facto multi homed interactive front end to applications we use every day?

- What types of businesses will start around widgets? There are already some businesses that appear to have legs, like Clearspring.

- Where else will we see widgets? cell phones, cars, smart homes, airplanes?…

- Where are we headed in the widget platform wars? Yahoo!, Google, Apple, and Microsoft have all lined up? And those are just the noisiest players.

- Will they ever have a more descriptive name?

I don’t have the answers but I am looking for them… and promise to share what I find on the trail of the evolving widget. This should be fun.

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