Widgets won’t work without a plan

by billso on Tuesday, 11 March 2008

From Busi­ness Week: large com­pa­nies, star­tups and indi­vid­u­als have been devel­op­ing and launch­ing wid­gets over the last few years. Wid­gets are small soft­ware appli­ca­tions that run inside a spe­cific environment.

Yes­ter­day I dis­cussed a spe­cific exam­ple – PicLens, a web browser exten­sion for image view­ing. Back on 9 Jan­u­ary 2008, I men­tioned Zotero, a Fire­fox exten­sion that helps stu­dents and aca­d­e­mic researchers orga­nize their lit­er­a­ture searches. CEO Lawrence Coburn of RateItAll has an exten­sive blog with reviews and com­ments about wid­gets, includ­ing this arti­cle about Google’s Face­book application.

Wid­gets are not new. Om Malik men­tioned them in Sep­tem­ber 2006 in this arti­cle on Busi­ness 2.0.

Wid­gets a small appli­ca­tions that are run and installed on the client – the com­puter desk­top, a web browser, or another appli­ca­tion. A wid­get pulls spe­cific data from servers on the Inter­net, or the cloud as it is usu­ally called in the indus­try. Set­tings are usu­ally based on the user’s pref­er­ences. My Mac dash­board includes time and tem­per­a­ture wid­gets, a cal­en­dar, an RSS wid­get that dis­plays my blog posts, and an NHL score­board with the lat­est games.

Wid­gets can also be deployed on an intranet or extranet, but there are addi­tional secu­rity con­cerns that have to be addressed, includ­ing logins and permissions.

Mac users got their first taste of wid­gets in 2005, when Dash­board was first included in Mac OS X. Yahoo soon fol­lowed with its own wid­gets for Win­dows users. Win­dows Vista and Google each have their own gad­gets. Of course, most these wid­gets won’t work on another system.

Face­book added sup­port for third-party appli­ca­tions last year, as I noted on 28 May 2007. As i men­tioned on 19 Feb­ru­ary 2008, I usu­ally ignore invites that I receive for Face­book appli­ca­tions. I’m never quite sure who can see my data, pro­file or sta­tus, even when Face­book lets me set these preferences.

Where’s the value?

As a flood of wid­gets, exten­sions, appls and other soft­ware comes to mar­ket, it’s impor­tant to ask about the value of these fea­tures. In many cases, these are lit­tle more than fea­tures or mini-sites that get embed­ded into the web browser or the com­puter desk­top. The vast major­ity of cur­rent wid­get devel­op­ers are writ­ing code for their own use. Some devel­op­ers post their wid­gets and share them with other users.

It’s rare for a com­pany like Slide to emerge. As I dis­cussed on 28 Jan­u­ary 2008, Slide recently received US$50 mil­lion in ven­ture cap­i­tal, based on the company’s suc­cess­ful line of Face­book appli­ca­tions. It’s a risky busi­ness, as Slide and other Face­book app devel­op­ers are almost totally depen­dent upon the suc­cess of the main Face­book site itself.

So any devel­oper who depends upon wid­gets for their busi­ness rev­enue has to diver­sify. Costs increase as the same wid­gets are dupli­cated for mul­ti­ple plat­forms, because revis­ing and recom­pil­ing each wid­get requires some dupli­ca­tion of effort for each spe­cific oper­at­ing sys­tem or web site. MySpace will soon offer wid­get sup­port, and var­i­ous inter­op­er­abil­ity and user pri­vacy schemes have been pro­posed that may let wid­gets work on mul­ti­ple social net­work­ing sites. The World Wide Web Con­sor­tium (W3C) has its own pro­posal, as men­tioned by Lorelle back in Novem­ber 2006. David Berkowitz has a Wid­get Stan­dards wiki.
These two issues are hold­ing back user adop­tion of these tools on social net­work­ing sites. Busi­ness Week’s recent revi­sion of its social media arti­cle is a great place to turn for more infor­ma­tion, as I men­tioned on 25 Feb­ru­ary 2008.

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