Go wild with widgets

What a desktop companion can do for you
  • Mike Elgan (Computerworld)
  • 30 October, 2006 11:40

Have you embraced the widget movement yet? If not, you will.

Widgets are small, often Internet-connected mini-applications that live on your PC, gathering information, keeping you informed and entertaining you.

Widgets -- also called "gadgets," "objects," "desklets," "docklets" and other names -- can bring you TV, RSS feeds, clocks, weather data, financial information, sports scores, music libraries, real-time system information and a huge variety of other content.

The new generation of widgets and widget-engines emerged in 2000, pioneered by start-ups. The widget concept gained widespread attention with its inclusion in an early beta of Windows Vista and a shipping version of the Mac OS.

Widgets typically run on a proprietary "widget engine" application that must be installed and resident in memory. Most widget platforms offer Web sites where builders can upload and users can download free widgets.

Meet the widgets

Yahoo Widgets (called Konfabulator before Yahoo bought Pixoria in July 2005) is a free JavaScript and XML widget engine that runs on both Mac OS X and Windows.

Microsoft Gadgets is a Windows program, the main version of which is designed to run "docked" to the side of the desktop on a "Sidebar" (maximized windows won't cover them) or on the desktop. Gadgets will ship with the forthcoming Windows Vista operating system. A Windows XP version will become available for download around that time as well. Gadgets run on three platforms: Windows, Web sites (, and others) and on mobile devices. Gadgets are created with DHTML or Microsoft.NET-based languages.

Apple Dashboard based on HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), was first bundled with Mac OS X 10.4. Dashboard widgets do not live on the desktop, but come to the foreground en masse with a hotkey.

Google Desktop is a Windows XP and Windows 2000 indexed file-search utility and widget engine. It displays widgets as "panels" that can exist in the Sidebar or removed and placed on the desktop as well as more graphical "gadgets."

Stardock DesktopX is a shareware application that shipped in 2000 for Windows that emphasizes user-built mini-applications called "objects," "widgets" or "gadgets," depending on whether they're designed to run on a running DesktopX instance, DesktopX-dependent executables or as stand-alone applications, respectively.

Kapsules is a freeware, Windows-based widget application based on ActiveScript and the .NET framework. The site was down at deadline.

AveDesk is a donationware program for Windows XP (mini-applications are called "desklets" and "docklets") based on Visual C++.

SuperKaramba is a Python-based Linux widget application for -- and included with -- the KDE desktop.

Serious Samurize is a Windows application (widgets are called "configs") that emphasizes the display of system information (available RAM, etc.) 2002

Serence Klipfolio is a Windows 2000 and Windows XP RSS-centric widget application that can be used to scan RSS feeds, then alert you when your search or keyword criteria are met. Rather than spreading single-purpose widgets around your desktop, KlipFolio enables you to cram a large number of items into one purple info box.

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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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The 'total information awareness' dashboard

The White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, NASA, network security centers, CNN and other organizations maintain "situation rooms," where teams of specialists monitor information in real time, coming from a variety of sources.

You can create your own, mini-situation room for doing exactly the same thing, thanks to cheap computers, the Internet and the wonderful world of widgets.

Create this info-nirvana by taking advantage of four underused resources:

- Your laptop or a spare, old or unused PC;

- Your operating system's multiple user accounts feature;

- The full range of widget engines; and

- Your imagination.

Use your extra PC

Most readers own more than one computer -- a main desktop system, plus a laptop used only for travel or an older desktop PC.

If you don't have an extra PC, get one. You can buy a complete, brand-new system for less than US$300 or a used one for less than that. It doesn't need to be a screamer, just capable of running a recent version of your operating system.

Running widgets on a separate computer enables you to optimize the system's interface for widgets, use every inch of real estate for your info and won't bog down your main system. Best of all, "using" widgets requires nothing more than simply glancing at the extra screen.

Use the 'User Accounts' feature

Both Windows PCs and Macs support multiple user accounts, a feature designed to enable each person using a system to set up a custom configuration. Create multiple dashboards (more on that below) and give each its own user account.

Use more than one widget engine

Some think of widget engines as mutually exclusive -- that you have to choose, for example, between Yahoo Widgets or Google Desktop. But when you dedicate a machine to widgets, you can run two, three, four or more widget engines at the same time without risk of slowing or crashing your main machine.

The idea is to avoid being boxed into the limited offerings of one platform. Just go "shopping" on all the widget application sites to look for widgets that suit your needs. Then download and install whatever software you need to run the widgets of your choice. Mix and match -- don't allow yourself to get locked in. And don't forget the Active Desktop. It's still there and still lets you instantly add Web pages to your desktop.

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Use your imagination

Now that you've eliminated all these barriers, you can create any number of custom info-dashboards, and launch each by logging into its user account. Here are a few info-dashboard ideas to get you started.

News junkie: Load your screen with RSS news feeds, TV news programs and pop-up news alerts.

Room with a view: Fill up your screen with outdoor web cams in your area. You're stuck at your desk, but you can still enjoy the sunshine.

Webmaster: Pack your info dashboard with widgets that monitor the health and performance of the Web sites you're responsible for. When one goes down, alarm bells ring.

Conference call dashboard: Add a clock for every city or region other callers are dialing in from, plus the webcams for callers who have them.

Sports nut: Stream sports scores, live games, sports news RSS feeds and pictures. Bonus craziness: Set up the desktop colors to match those of your favorite team.

Only the paranoid survive: Stream security camera feeds, Internet threat alerts, tsunami warnings and other scary information to your dashboard all day.

All about the Benjamins: Build a financial dashboard to watch your stocks and get late-breaking financial news.

Flyboy: Get government weather data, streaming tower chatter from your local airport, notices to airmen -- and watch the airport webcam.

Fanboy: Install Harry Potter widgets, TV show widgets and "countdown" clocks to events like movie openings.

Simply visit each widget engine's gallery of free, downloadable widgets to get your own ideas about what kind of dashboards to create. Or -- better yet -- roll your own!

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached via email or his blog.