Go wild with widgets

What a desktop companion can do for you

Who invented the widget?

Konfabulator co-founder Arlo Rose claims to have invented the widget, but the concept emerged years before Konfabulator shipped.

Some claim Apple invented the widget. The company's "Desk Accessories," conceived in 1981 and bundled with the 1984 version of the Mac OS, were small programs that brought useful tools and innovative multitasking to a non-multitasking environment. Many of today's widgets copy the functionality of the original Desk Accessories -- clocks and calculators for instance. But the Desk Accessories feature doesn't count as a real widget engine because Desk Accessories couldn't stream information from the Internet and wasn't end-user-created or shared.

The whole widget craze was predicted by the CEO of the company that invented it. In June 1996, years before the current boom of widget engines emerged, this CEO was quoted by Dow Jones International News as saying that "the future of computing will revolve around" these small, Internet-connected applications that would live on the desktop, "blurring the distinction" between individual PCs and network and Internet servers.

That CEO was none other than -- wait for it! -- Bill Gates, and the company was, of course, Microsoft.

Microsoft introduced the "Active Desktop" as part of the 1997 release of Windows Desktop Update, which was an optional component of the Internet Explorer 4.0 browser download and was built into all subsequent versions of Windows.

Microsoft's mini-applets weren't called widgets, but "Active Desktop Items." Microsoft and other companies offered a download site for "items" they created, including weather widgets, news updates, financial info, a comic strip of the day, and others. In researching this article, I discovered -- to my shock and horror -- that a vestigial version of this site still exists.

The Active Desktop was far easier to use (and far uglier) than any current widget offering. Installing a pre-built widget was a two-click affair. To transform any HTML page into a widget, you simply right-click on your desktop, choose Properties, the Desktop tab, Customize Desktop, the Web tab then click on the New button.

The trouble with widgets

Bill Gates believed the Active Desktop would revolutionize desktop computing, but it quickly slouched into obscurity, irrelevant and forgotten, and has existed since in what can only be described as a persistent vegetative state. Microsoft's first attempt at "widgets" fizzled for four reasons.

1. "Widgets" were buried. In 1997, PC monitors were expensive and small. Windows users generally ran current open windows full-screen. The Active Desktop had no "Sidebar" feature blocking full-screen windows or an Apple-style put-gadgets-on-top hotkey. Ultimately, it really didn't matter how "active" your desktop was -- it was hidden beneath your work, and too cumbersome to view.

2. The Active Desktop wasn't active enough. Web sites tended to be more static in the late 1990s than they are today. And Microsoft didn't build in the ability to update more frequently than once per day.

3. The Active Desktop was bloated. It was a resource hog, exacerbating Windows' tendency to freeze and crash.

4. Downloadable "widgets" weren't compelling enough. After some use, available widgets left users wanting more. Sure, the "Microsoft Investor Ticker" was nice, but why couldn't I also get news from various sources on the selected companies, historical data and other financial information?

5. It was too hard to switch from one set of widgets to another. It would have been great to build a "personal" set of widgets running sometimes, and "work-related" widgets running at other times -- or to quickly set up event-specific sets of widgets (during the Olympics, for example). But this was a major pain with Active Desktop.

I list Active Desktop's shortcomings not to dance on its grave, but because today's widget applications share (to a lesser degree) these same barriers.

The good news is that you can overcome all these limitations and use widgets to create "total information awareness" dashboards that are always visible, don't bog down your system and let you enjoy the full range of widget offerings, unfettered by limited desktop screen real estate. Here's how.

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