Widgets have become a hot topic in the web community lately as a large number of sites are allowing users to personalize their experience. The term widget can be used interchangeably with gadget, badge, module, capsule, snippet, mini and flake but for the sake of simplicity I will use the term widget in this article to cover all of these terms.
What is a widget?
As the web has become widget happy with community development projects popping up everywhere, I think it is safe to assume that the general public does not even know what a widget is. Rachel Cunliffe, cre8d web designer, recently asked this very question as she encountered an advertisement which pointed her to a widget. A widget is a portable chunk of code that can be installed and executed within any separate html-based web page. A widget can be created for just about every site or service possible thus allowing users to pull it into personalized homepages (Netvibes, Spotback and Pageflakes), blogs (WordPress and Typepad) or other social website pages (AIM Pages, TagWorld and MySpace).
Why all the buzz about widgets?
Widgets are a great way for a site or service to creatively offer products, services or news without having to visit the actual site. Similar to feeds and syndication, widgets can save a user time by making everything they care about on the web easily accessible in one place. Widgets can also leverage syndication in unique ways. The idea really rings clear on a personalized homepage which allow users to aggregate and create their own configuration of widgets. In a recent TechCrunch article Mike Arrington explained the value in a widget-driven personal homepage, Netvibes, as it positions all your favorites in front of you in at one time in saying:
“Like Google search, the best thing about Netvibes is that it has no problem with me quickly leaving the site to take care of other business. And that’s why it’s earned my loyalty as a user.”
Ease of use and the ability to see all or items in one page (via widgets) makes them a key component in the personalization process.
It is unclear exactly who was the first to create a widget. History seems to believe the word "widget" is derived from the combination of "window" and "gadget." A number of widget projects have risen up to help further along the widget movement. Konfabulator was swept up by Yahoo and leveraged to launch Yahoo Widgets to place widgets in front of a mainstream audience. Dashboard, an Apple project, was created to place widgets on the Mac OS X desktop. Opera web browser offers desktop widgets. Google Gadgets launched yesterday (October 3, 2006) to unleash 1200 new widgets which can be used on any web page. Microsoft also offers Gadgets for Windows Live. IAmAlpha.com is an AOL widget initative for AIM Pages which launched with a makeover in May 2006.
A number of widget marketplaces that have also popped up. Widgetbox, a the online widget marketplace, looks to widgetize the web by offering a number of different widget options. Widgipedia, a free widget community deems itself the ultimate cross-platform resource for both users and developers of widgets and gadgets. The Spring Box, offers a platform to create widgets on for both the desktop and the web and Clearspring, currently in private beta, also appears to be a widget platform looking to widgetize the web.
Bottom-line: Widgets are the wave of the future of the web as our attention continues to be overloaded with too much information. With widgets, users are able to customize a page to be able to get their sites and services in personalized homepages. An open standard development infrastructure which would allow a single widget to be plugged into any application and work properly seems to be something the widget movement is currently lacking – it may be a pipe-dream but I think it is worth wishing for.