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Technology

Widgets and gadgets

June 18, 2007

Yahoo Widgets

Apple Computer Inc., Yahoo Inc. and some others call them widgets. Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. call them gadgets.

"Whatever you call them, they certainly represent a software idea whose time has come," says Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

Widgets — or gadgets — are little computer programs that do one thing, like displaying weather reports or stock quotes, playing music or showing a constantly updated chart of your store's daily sales. They're usually designed as little windows that can be dragged and dropped anywhere you like on your computer's display.

They are designed to install quickly and easily, and many can be downloaded for free from the internet.

And with third-party software developers and marketing experts finding new uses for them, they're likely to become a much more common sight in the coming months on desktop computer screens, both PC and Mac.

Widgets and gadgets: who's got 'em

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Yahoo entered the widgets business in the summer of 2005 by buying Pixoria Inc., whose Konfabulator widget platform became Yahoo Widgets. Jonathan Strauss, Yahoo Widgets product manager, says widgets are about quick and easy access to information.

To use Yahoo Widgets, you start by downloading the basic software from the web. It comes with a starter set of widgets meant for a broad audience, such as a weather widget and a stock ticker.

There are now more than 4,600 widgets in the Yahoo library, Strauss says, many aimed at much narrower niches, with his personal favourites including a widget that displays a new Dilbert cartoon every day, one that shows an animated hula dancer, and one that plays songs by musician MC Hammer.

Google, of Mountain View, Calif., has Google Gadgets, some of which are designed specifically to work with the company's Google Desktop software, so they run directly on the computer desktop. Others are universal, meaning they can be plugged into any web page or used with Google Desktop.

Apple's OS X Tiger operating system, launched in 2005, was the first to incorporate Apple's Dashboard widget platform. There are now more than 2,000 Dashboard widgets, says Willi Powell, strategic development manager at Apple Canada Inc. in Markham, Ont. Third parties developed most of them.

Microsoft started with web gadgets, which run inside a web browser. With the launch of Windows Vista, Microsoft integrated the idea into the operating system. Vista incorporates a feature called the Sidebar — similar to Apple's Dashboard — that normally sits on the right-hand side of the computer screen. Gadgets run in the sidebar.

Elliot Katz, senior product manager for Windows client at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont., predicts Sidebar Gadgets will be one significant reason for customers to move to Vista.

What do you do with a widget?

Christopher Marentis, chief executive of Clearspring Technologies Inc., a McLean, Va., company that makes tools for creating widgets, says his company's job is giving its customers the tools to put content in "virtual containers" that work on many platforms. The best use of a widget, he says, is to deliver information that gets updated dynamically — like weather or stock prices.

Since most widgets can be downloaded for free, you might expect them to include advertising. In fact, most don't — for now, anyway.

Microsoft and Apple see these tools as added features meant to enhance the appeal of their operating systems. Powell calls it "a simple way to clean up application clutter."

Many third parties, meanwhile, see them as a way to drive traffic to websites.

For instance, a weather widget might give you current conditions and today's forecast for your area, but when you want to know the long-range forecast or the weather in a city you are about to visit, clicking on the widget opens a website — which contains the advertising that brings in the revenue for the widget's maker.

Some major brands, such as Nike and Coca-Cola, have created widgets related to their products, Strauss notes — they help build brand awareness and loyalty.

"Yahoo is a media business," Strauss says, "so for us, eyeballs are the raw material of monetization."

Business gadgets

Some software developers create widgets for another reason. Vancouver-based Maximizer Inc. sells sales-force automation software, also called Maximizer.

One widget it has developed provides quick access to contacts in the Maximizer address book, explains William Anderson, executive vice-president of technology at Maximizer. Another shows sales managers the sales in their staff's "pipeline," and lets them obtain more information.

Maximizer sees the widgets as a way to make its core software easier to use, which will result in more people using it, says Anderson.

"People shouldn't have to go out of their way to use software."

Corporate IT departments can even build their own widgets, Levy says. They are faster to develop than traditional software because "they fit into an overall framework that if you were developing the application from scratch would not be there," he says.

And Strauss adds that anyone who can develop websites using JavaScript — a simple programming language — can develop widgets.

"It's the same skill set," he says.

In time, Levy says, more widgets will probably incorporate advertising. But widget makers will have to do this without being too intrusive. If they clutter their widgets with flashing banner ads, he says, "users will tune out in droves."

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