Widgets, gadgets, call them what you will - mini modular applications are starting to look suspiciously like the next big thing, not only on the desktop and the web but also increasingly on mobile devices. The inaugural Widgets Live! conference in San Francisco was a sell out earlier this month and attracted sponsorship from four of the biggest players in online media (Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and AOL). The W3C has released a draft standards doc. Widgets have even spawned their own 'pedia' (widgipeida) - an intriguing new barometer of online buzz (e.g. Lostpedia, Wookiepedia).
So why now? Konfabulator first launched over three years ago and its been a good eighteen months since Apple released Dashboard as part of Mac OS X Tiger. Below are half a dozen key factors that have contributed to the breakthrough of the widget.
1.) Increased broadband penetration
A large proportion of widgets rely on an always-on broadband connection to drip-feed dynamic content to them. Increased broadband penetration means more people capable of running widgets. Higher spec computers and the development of operating systems which cope better with running multiple applications simultaneously have also helped cultivate a more widget-friendly environment. Like the personalised homepage (see earlier post), the widget has come of age thanks to technology finally catching up with the ambition. What was the Active Desktop (bundled with Windows Desktop Update way back in 1997) if not a widget engine let down by immature technology?
2.) The widespread adoption of AJAX
Thanks to AJAX, web widgets now behave more like desktop applications. They are more responsive, they can be dragged and dropped and they update dynamically, without the need for endless page refreshes.
3.) The arrival of the big boys
Apple's integration of Dashboard into Tiger in April 2005 and Yahoo!'s purchase of Konfabulator a few months later (in July 05) undoubtedly represent a key turning point in the history of the desktop widget, not least because Yahoo! opted to make its newly acquired widget engine available for free. On the web, it was the arrival of Google and Microsoft to the widget party which really got things moving.
4.) The emergence of converged widget engines
A few weeks back Fox Interactive Media unveiled SpringWidgets - the first widget engine to work on both webtop and desktop - and Windows Vista is due to offer native support of Microsoft Gadgets (currently only available via Windows Live) via its sidebar. Converged widget engines will undoubtedly prove to be a shot in the arm for the fledgling widget economy.
5.) The maturing of mobile internet
The next frontier of widget development is the mobile platform which has been opened up by the flood of Java-enabled colour screen handsets and the movement towards tolerable internet access speeds on handheld devices. WidSets in one of the first products to the market in this space and a it's pretty good first stab. Once flat-rate data tariffs become the norm this area looks set to explode.
6.) Small is the new big
A more fundamental reason why widgets are starting to take off is the broader shift towards smaller, more rapidly developed applications and increasing hybridisation by means of mash-ups and APIs. One only need compare the protracted product development cycle of Microsoft Office (gap between releases: 4 years) with the iterative development of Google Docs and Spreadsheets to see where things are headed. Widgets fit perfectly into this new landscape of smaller, simpler, connected apps.
To round off, here's a list of some of the key products in the world of widgets:
Apple Dashboard (Mac)
Google Desktop Gadgets (PC)
Kapsules (PC - currently offline)
Yahoo! Widgets (née Konfabulator) (Mac & PC)
Google Web Gadgets
Converged widgets (desktop and web)
mobidgets (currently in private alpha)