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
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
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
Fast forward to late April, 2005. Apple releases its "Tiger" OS. One of the cool
new "innovations" is Apple's
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 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
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
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
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