Widgets to play major role in desktop information access

Desktop software widgets have taken their time to establish themselves in the mainstream of computing, but with support now integrated into both major operating systems and development of third party platforms, the business community is finally taking notice of widgets and their potential applications.

Widgets, small applications that sit on or overlay the desktop, are gaining so much popularity that corporations are increasingly using them as a marketing tool, as well as a value-added information delivery mechanism.

"The user's desktop is extremely valuable, it's prime real estate," said Paul Brody, Yahoo vice president of desktop products.

Yahoo recently launched Widgets 4, a software add-on for both Mac and Windows based on technology it acquired when it bought Konfabulator in July 2005. Independent of the built-in widget capabilities of both Mac OS X Tiger and Windows Vista, it has more than 4,300 widgets, many written by third parties but that include company-branded ones.

"If you have that application running there (on the desktop) all the time, from an advertiser and a brand's perspective, that's obviously an opportunity to connect with their key audiences," said Brody.

Widgets allow the user to access information sources such as search engines, retail sites and other data sources like stock quotes, airline departures and arrivals, blog RSS feeds and news sites without using a browser and using only a small amount of screen real estate. Widgets can also take the form of complete small applications such as clocks, calculators, IM clients and media players. In effect, widgets are slicker, more interactive versions of web bookmarks, sand there is a widget for just about everything.

Yahoo offers around 4,300 widgets for its platform, mostly developed by third parties. Apple's dashboard platform has over 2,000 widgets available and there are already several hundred for the Windows Vista gadget sidebar.

Popular widgets include weather trackers, news feeds, train, bus and flight schedules, currency converters and trackers and tools for posting to blogs and Twitter.

Whether widgets are time-wasters or have the potential to be exploited by advertisers, one analyst says people like them for their cool factor.

"Widgets allow you to keep your fingers in all the digital pies that make up your life," said Dr. Curtis Gittens, senior research analyst for Info-Tech Research Group, a Canadian IT market research company based in Ontario.

"But it won't help you solve the whole information overload problem," Gittens said.

"It could become as messy as your bookmarks."

Gittens said users should download widgets from established sites.

"Play safe, stick to the main players and you will have lots of fun with your widgets," he said.