The Widget Wars - InformationWeek
04:41 PM
Mike Elgan
Mike Elgan

The Widget Wars

With its release of the new "Tiger" version of its OS, Apple brought major attention to Microsoft's user interface idea of running a colony of small, data-driven applications on your desktop. But a company called Pixoria made it real for Windows users.

During the late Pleistocene (the 1990s) I was lucky enough to be the editor of Windows Magazine. It was a wonderful time to edit a PC-oriented magazine. Part of the reason for that was -- in an age before spam, spyware and Google -- people had time to get enthusiastic about customizing the user interface of their desktops. Users spent more time exploring the possibilities of computing and less time just trying to survive information overload and malicious attacks.

In the year 1996, Microsoft's introduction of Internet Explorer 4.0 was to usher in a new age of desktop customization. The "Active Desktop" would place small applications, such as stock tickers, weather reports and others right on the desktop. (Here's an article I wrote for the October, 1996, issue of Windows Magazine, where I introduce our readers to the Active Desktop concept.) Those applications would pull data straight from the Internet and update themselves frequently. A fertile ecosystem of Active Desktop development was about to blossom -- thousands of companies would try to outdo each other with their innovative and appealing offerings. Microsoft led the way with a special web site devoted to Microsoft-created Active Desktop items.

And then something happened: Nothing.

Why? My bogus and insubstantial theory is that Windows users tend to always have something running full screen. The desktop is always hidden, so Active Desktop items are ignored and useless. Whatever the reason, the Active Desktop thing fizzled out.

Fast forward to late April, 2005. Apple releases its "Tiger" OS. One of the cool new "innovations" is Apple's Dashboard Widgets, which are, ahem!, small applications, such as stock tickers, weather reports and lots of others that live right on the desktop.

Unlike on Windows, the concept will succeed on the Mac. Why? Again, with my theory: Mac users tend to arrange windows so none are minimized and several are visible at the same time. "Widgets" will merely compete for desktop real estate against other windows.

If you think I'm implying that Apple stole its "Widgets" idea from Microsoft, I'm not. Apple stole it from Pixoria, the people who make an application called Konfabulator.

Konfabulator theoretically "stole" it from Microsoft, but that's not really fair. I mean, come on, Microsoft hasn't given its Active Desktop idea a thought for more than five years.

Each of the vendors -- Microsoft, Pixoria and Apple -- used different approaches and has advantages and disadvantages.

Of the three, only Konfabulator works on both Windows and Mac. I installed and and started playing around with it this morning (on a Windows PC), and was surprised to learn that Konfabulator is very, very cool. The application is shareware, and well supported by hundreds of free Widgets. The installation was flawless on two machines, and the addition of new widgets is nearly instantaneous.

If you want to get an idea of what Widgets are available, go here (Warning: Once you see the widgets, you'll want to install Konfabulator).

I'm currently running Widgets that show a slide show of my photos, give me the local weather and surf report, show the phase of the moon, provide a live calendar and clock, alert me when I have Gmail, display my to do list and a few others.

Yes, Windows users like me are still more likely to full-screen applications than before. What's new is that we tend to have much larger, higher resolution screens than we used to, and run more than one PC. Konfabulator is an ideal tool for keeping track of tons of frequently updating information at a glance.

I'd like to thank Apple for bringing attention to Microsoft's user interface innovation -- and thank Konfabulator for fulfilling its promise for Windows users!

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