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John T. Unger

Why the Whole Web is Wild About Widgets: An Introduction

John T. Unger November 10, 2006

Widgets are all the rage this week. Let's take a look at what widgets are, why they're popular, how they're likely to change the web and where you can go to get some.

What's a Widget?

The best definition I've seen yet comes from an announcement by the The World Wide Web Consortium as quoted in Steve Rubel's blog, Micropersuasion. Steve reports that the W3C has posted a working draft proposing a specification for online widgets.

The proposal covers "small client-side applications for displaying and updating remote data, packaged in a way to allow a single download and installation on a client machine." The standard covers widgets that run on the desktop as well as in the browser.

The W3C says widgets include "clocks, stock tickers, news casters, games and weather forecasters. It also notes that widgets go by many names, including "gadgets" or "modules".

I think that description sums it up pretty nicely, though it may be a bit on the dry and technical side for some. Another way of describing widgets is to say that they are cool toys or tools you can add to your blog without needing to understand the code that makes them work and without having to alter your blog's template code. TypePad likes to refer to widgets as "bling for your blog" and has made it easy to add widgets to blogs built with Basic Templates.

The key features of most widgets are:

  1. They allow simple installation, in many cases as simple as specifying your blog and clicking a button.
  2. They allow you to share content streamed from another sources on the web such as weather, news, video and pictures.
  3. They can add complicated functions (such as live chat, your current IM availability, or updated counts of links to your site) without having to write code or do much configuration.
  4. Many, but not all widgets, are designed to work across multiple platforms and browsers.

Ultimately, widgets, like the web itself are about connections— between people sharing content and between companies and sites that host content for people.

Why would you want Widgets?

One of the most common reasons for adding widgets is that they're just plain fun… People like to embed games, cartoons, videos and other "sticky" content. There's also a lot of ways they can enrich the experience you offer readers on a targeted or topical blog. If you run a financial advice blog, for instance, a live stock ticker might be useful. How about weather information or flight schedules for a travel blog? Widgets are a great way to share the things you like on the web. There are a variety of widgets that offer options for community building, participation and live chat. There are widgets that allow you to run ads on your blog, recommend products you like or track and display auctions. The truth is, there is something for just about everyone that can be created in widget form, and in some cases, if you can't find it and don't know how to build it, you can request it.

How will Widgets change the web?

I think the greatest value widgets offer is the ability to add functions and services that aren't built-in to existing blog platforms. When MajikWidget launched and started taking requests for widgets, the first thing I did was go through all the items on the TypePad Hacks Agenda and send off requests for the items that I thought could be created by a third party. In fact, one of my suggestions was among the first set of requested widgets! I can easily envision publishing platforms emulating the strategy of Firefox: create a stripped down, stable, fast, secure product which allows users to add the features they want using extensions written outside the development team. By distributing the load of development and hosting, widgets inspire and promote a grassroots effort to design software around the needs of users. You get what you build, ask for or hire out. And rather than causing software bloat, widgetized software elements are something that you only use if you find them useful.

Steve Rubel has an interesting post which suggests that widgets will eventually transform blogs into highly personalized start pages. As more services spring up to host specific media (Flikr for photos, Youtube for video, etc) widgets provide an easy way to aggregate all your accounts in one place. The real advantage of this is that it allows more freedom to choose the host that works best for you— there's a boatload of social bookmarking sites for instance. If I can use a widget to bring the data into my own site seamlessly, then I'm not neccesarily tied to the most popular service… I can choose the one that most clearly meets my needs.

Nial Kennedy, co-host of last Monday's Widget Live conference describes the convergence of web applications and destinations in his post The Widgetization of the Web. Here's a fairly lengthy excerpt that explains quite well how and why widgets are taking off:

Big web destinations are opening their templates to custom configurations by users and pre-configurations with special partners. Mix and match your favorite content from around the web on your personal start page from Microsoft, Google, or Netvibes. Share a few live and always updating bits of information in your blog sidebar using widgets on WordPress or TypePad.

Small(er) businesses can leverage the huge distributions of users across most of the top web properties. Over half of the top Internet companies for home users currently open up their pages for easy setup of your content.

New ecosystems are springing up around widget-enabled sites. Companies such YouTube and Slide receive the majority of their traffic from embedded content on MySpace.

In posts here and here, Nial discusses a sort of before and after picture of how widget developers who attended the conference look at future development. Both of these are worth checking out for an interesting behind the scenes view. In an article for CnnMoney, Om Malik (the other organizer of Widget Live) describes widgets as:

…simply a new way to take advantage of Web services. They make the Net more fun, useful, and customizable for users. And they turn the biggest destination sites like MySpace into virtual platforms that create their own juice.

Creating a standard spec for widgets that work across all platforms would be a really useful move forward at this point. The widget industry has grown quite rapidly— and because most widgets are created to address specific needs, many of them only work on specific platforms. You can't add a WordPress extension to your TypePad blog, etc. There are several companies making a strong effort to collect widgets that can be used anywhere, and I think these will ultimately be the services that succeed.

Where can I get Widgets?

Here's what I've tried so far:

TypePad's Widget Gallery: My initial impression was less than favorable because they don't work on blogs that use Advanced Templates. If you're using Basic Templates, they're a snap to install. There are currently just under seventy to choose from with more being added all the time. TypePad's widgets are free.

MajikWidget: I've written about MajikWidget a few times, most recently when they upgraded their service and added new widgets. Although they currently only offer six items, I believe they're a company to watch. A recent post on their blog about growing their community and working on infrastructure demonstrates that they are still deeply invested in customer service and feedback, two of the things that I gave them high marks on in the past. MajikWidget is free to try out. After using the first 25 credits, you can buy more credits via Paypal.

cbox: There's one in the sidebar if you'd like to try it out, or you can read my review here. Cbox comes in both a free and paid version. To see the difference, view their comparison chart.

Here's a list of Widget providers I haven't tried yet. I'll be posting reviews of these soon.

Snipperoo: Ivan Pope at Snipperoo was one of the early commenters at TypePad Hacks during the stage when he was still collecting, studying and testing widgets. Sniperroo bills itself as "The Universal Widget" and includes both a cross-platform delievery system for widgets as well as a directory of almost 2,000 widgets. Although I like the design and concept of Snipperoo, I find the directions just a wee bit confusing. I've not been able to just intuitively throw together a collection of widgets there and get them onto my blog. As soon as I figure it out, I'll write up a quick tutorial and review. Snipperoo just launched a Typepad plugin. I expect that a this will be designed to work only with Basic Template blogs, but you should be able to add Snipperoo panels to a notes typelist if you have an Advanced Template blog. Snipperoo is free.

Widgetbox: is a free widget platform similar to Snipperoo. They have an extensive directory of widgets which can be added to an automatically updated panel that you install on your blog with a bit of javascript. Their widget panels work with "TypePad, WordPress, Blogger, MySpace as well as most other blogs, sidebars or websites."

Google Gadgets: All the groovy features available for your customized Google homepage or Google Desktop are now offered as widgets that can be easily installed on your blog or website. The press release is here. This is a great way to integrate other Google services such as Google Calendar or Picasa to your blog.

Yahoo! Publisher Network: is offering a limited set of free widgets (which they call badges).

SpringWidgets: A proprietary platform from Fox Interactive Media designed to function in a cross-platform browser environment as well as on Windows desktops. There are currently six widgets to choose from. Feedburner announced a service that applies custom branding to SpringWidgets, regardless of where they are used.

I'll probably put together a test blog that I can use specifically to demonstrate and test more widgets as they come along. I don't want to overload the pages here, as each request an individual widget makes for information will incremetally slow the page load time. In the meantime if you'd like to see a large collection of widgets in action, check out Fred Wilson's blog, A VC.

More Like This: Blog Tools , Typelists + Sidebars , Widgets

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Comments

Beth says:

Excellent article. I just finished about two weeks worth of experimenting with widgets for nonprofit organizations for a screencast. I use typepad platform, so I did experiment with the ones you mention above. If you follow my link above, you'll discover my widget posts and see examples of all the ones you list -- well almost all, plus comments from readers about them.

john t unger says:

Thanks Beth,

I checked out your blog and immediately subscribed… You've done a great deal of interesting work and testing!

Beth says:

John,

My latest is the a fundraising campaign with widgets using ChipIn. What's cool is the widget is viral and you can even post one here!
http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2006/11/personal_fundra.html

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Why the Whole Web is Wild About Widgets: An Introduction:

» Let's Go Widget Shopping! from Beth's Blog
This weekend I went widget shopping! I installed (and unstalled) lots of widgets until I found a few good ones that might be appropriate for nonprofits. Here are my notes and reflections. Where to find widgets There are three general [Read More]

» What is a Widget? from Beth's Blog
Based on photo entitled Gear from Flattop341's Flickr Industrial Set If you've been following my widgets category, you know that I'm working on a screencast and have been researching and playing with widgets. For the script, before jumping into the [Read More]

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