Widgets Live

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Put together in just a couple of weeks by Niall Kennedy and Om Malik, the Widgets Live conference was a timely event that capitalized on the catchphrase of the day and the fact that a lot of folks are in town for the Web 2.0 conference. The sold out crowd of 200 leaned towards the developer crowd which many of the sponsors said were just the type of people they were looking to reach.

Arlo Rose of Yahoo! Widgets traced his inspiration for the desktop widgets ecosystem he created to his early work on a product called Kaleidoscope which allowed people to “skin” (there wasn’t a word for it back then) their Mac OS environment. He reminded me that I didn’t really become aware of the concept of plug-ins to extend functionality of a product until the advent of the Mac OS Control Strip which, if you think of it, are the first instance of a widget as a small, graphical control for installed software.

Fox Interactive Media announced the launch of the SpringWidgets community (which I’m told will become a marketplace in a few weeks) and a partnership with Feedburner which will make it easy to turn your feeds into self-contained mini-readers that you can place on a web page as well as drag onto your Windows desktop. Very cool.

Photobucket’s Peter Pham shared some of their metrics on their growth (28M registered users, 80k new registrations/day) and how important widget developers have been to the widespred adoption of their photo hosting services. Most telling was a blip in their uptake which coincided with their renaming of Slideshow to Widget. We have to remember that the rest of the world has no idea what a “widget” is and that sometimes the more descriptive (but less trendy) names are better. Once they renamed it back to Slideshow, their growth recovered it’s old momentum.

The afternoon sessions featured panel discussions which explored each of the major instances of widgets. Desktop Widgets, Ajax Homepages (which are made up of widgets), Blog sidebar widgets, and widget aggregator services (such as Widgetbox).

Monetization was only touched upon but it was telling to hear that both Microsoft and Google are not really concerned with direct monetization and see the distribution of bits and pieces of their content as a way of spreading their reach and driving traffic back to their site. Affiliate models as well as a marketplace for premium widgets were discussed but it’s still too early to tell. Kevin Burton mistook the Google AdSense Gadget for a desktop widget that runs Ad Sense contextual ads on your desktop (it’s not) to which the room erupted in laughter wondering why anyone would want to give up desktop space to such a thing. In the Photobucket presentation, they mentioned that you need to be careful of running advertising on your web-based widgets because users that install them on hosted blogs may end up violating Terms of Service agreements for some services which do not allow for third party monetization.

A recurring theme for many was the prospect of widgets interacting with each other. The example I think of is taken from the old intranet portal days when you could drag a stock quote from one module onto a news module and run a news search using that stock’s ticker symbol. The Microsoft Sidebar team is thinking about this the most as they seem to have the deepest penetration into the stack to make this a reality but doing this on with third party information sources brings up all sorts of security problems which need to be resolved.

Sessions on Mobile and Hardware widgets rounded out the afternoon with a look at the devices that can serve as important endpoints for widget consumption. Cellphones are obvious so long as the syncronization and context problems are solved. I only want to look at a subset of my information on the cellphone and want to do it in a way that’s not only optimized for the mobile experience but also takes advantage of the features of my handset. The Chumby “squeezable interface” is my new favorite design idea.

Finally came a round of lightining sessions where several folks got up to announce things they were working on. I put in a plug for YPN’s new enhance page which we will continue to update as a publisher-focused catalog of the latest and greatest that Yahoo has to offer and loaned my laptop out to the Zazzle guy whos battery was dead. I found KlipFolio’s demonstration of their integration of desktop and mobile a compelling way to drag things into your cellphone a compelling way to move data around.

All told, a worthwhile way to spend the day if just to underscore the point that we’ve only just begun. The endpoints are beginning to define themselves (desktop, homepage, blog sidebar, cellphone) but, as someone mentioned, the most popular widgets are the same calendars, weather, and stock quotes. The real killler app is some totally rad social media app, “sitting on someone’s cellphone in South Korea that no one has discovered yet.” The platform is ready and waiting to pull such an app in and redefine the concept of a widget and how we use them.

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