Monday, October 13, 2008

Mobile Widgets and Chips

Recently on a visit to a chip shop it struck me that chippie workers constantly have to say the word "chips" over and over and I had a chuckle at how they would slowly dement themselves with all the chip-based permutations day-in and day-out.

My laugh was short-lived though as the next day I caught myself saying the word "widget" at least 14 times an hour.

Widgets are the new chips alright.

Remember the old days when the media majors wanted you to go to their own portals and have your whole Internet experience from within their domain?

They all (MSN, Yahoo, AOL, BT et al) had this approach to try and hold onto the customer. It was the the shopping mall where they'd like to lock the door when you enter as when you left they couldn't successfully advertise, track and sell you things. This would be a fine approach if one web service could really offer us everything but clearly the world isn't like that on the web anymore.

I use hotmail, facebook, google (nearly all their applications), flickr, myspace and a tonne of other web services and before 'widgets' I would have to go to all these different sites running around to get to my data and services. Tabbed browsing helped make this a little easier but still, I was opening pages left right and centre.

Widgets, as a recap, allow you to take a chunk of a websties functionality and present it anywhere you would like - this allowed the data and service to come to you rather than the other way around. The graphical interface of your Flickr or YouTube widget has no dependency on Flickr or YouTube as the widget developer (and you) only want the data from these services. You can embed widgets in your Web2.0 profiles, your custom start pages or embed them in web pages you code yourself. They are modular little lego chunks of functionality that allow us to construct our own dashboards and environments.

Widgets are overground now and are used by bloggers, social network users, auction sites and owners of personal web sites. They exist on home page sites such as iGoogle, Netvibes, or Pageflakes.

Have a look at how I can easily aggregate widgets on one page to help with all aspects of my travel planning. A widget here, a widget there allows me to take the best of each web service and commoditise them to suit myself:

For the most part widgets are sandboxed and operate in ignorance of one another and mostly they manipulate data in the web cloud - it's just safer that way.

Recently there has been a rightful hoo-ha about mobile widgets i.e. widgets running on a mobile phone. For the most part web services on the mobile phone are consumed using a mobile browser or a dedicated application. The mobile browsers such as Safari, Opera Mini or the Nokia browsers are conceptually derived from their web counterparts and for the most part mobile web services via a browser, while improving, tend to be cumbersome with the best experience requiring multi-touch devices and continual zooming in and out to navigate pages that were essentially developed for the 'big screen' web.

The same principal that applied on web also applies to some widget platforms - bring the data to the customer rather than have them run around the web for it themselves.

The first big service in this space was by Nokia with their Widsets offering which was a Java program on your mobile that allowed you to add, view, and configure widgets directly from your mobile. To make life easier Nokia also provided a fixed line service to more easily allow users to manage how the service appeared on their mobile.

The market recently has exploded with widget offerings for mobile and it is in this field that I find myself caught up in - being earnest about widgets, looking at widget solutions, imagining the strategic importance of widgets - this ridiculous sounding little word now holds great gravity for me. I can no longer think of a 'mobile meal' without thinking "would you like some widgets with that?".

Mobile widget solutions have now moved on from standalone application style approaches, like Widgets, to richly integrated solutions that harmonise with a users idle screen (your phones dashbaord). The area is in transition and there are currently no standards on how to do this across multiple handset platforms and phone models.

The fight is on between Telecomms companies, handset manufacturers and large service providers.

Nokia has an S60 solution they are developing with the Symbian foundation, Opera has a widget solution that it is rolling out with operators, handset manufacturers are replacing their 'program menus' with richer widget style dashboards.

My dad would never use a mobile browser but I do believe he would use a Celtic football club widget alerting him of scores and news and providing him with simple links to video footage right from his mobile phone home screen. The simplicity and immediacy of web services has changed with these little critters called widgets and if you don't find yourself coming across this innocuous word alongside some market superlatives in 2009 then I, for one, would be very surprised.

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