The widgetization of the Web

Web services boost their widget offerings

While the dot-com era focused squarely on aggregating data on the Internet, one of the most defining characteristics of Web 2.0 is the deconstruction of the Web into small, single-purpose applications called widgets or gadgets.

These small chunks of code can either run on a desktop or be inserted into Web pages. Widgets are gaining popularity among consumers because they allow virtually anyone to easily customize a Web page or social network with news, weather, podcasts, video and other content. Anytime a YouTube video, for example, is added to a non-YouTube page, it becomes a widget.

Several vendors are bringing out a fast-growing list of widgets for users as well as tools for creating proprietary widgets.

Opera Software this month posted the 1,001st widget on its Web site. The latest widget uses site analytics to create visitor maps that can be posted on blog sites. WeatherBug this month noted that its WeatherBug gadget, which offers live local weather information, was downloaded 200,000 times within hours after it was added to Microsoft's Live Gallery repository of widgets.

Widgetbox, meanwhile, in January rolled out a blog widget, or "blidget," to allow blog publishers create a widget version of their blogs.

"The World Wide Web as we know it is exploding," wrote Jit Jaokar last month on his widget blog. "From its fragments emerges a new 'container-based' Web based on widgets," added Jaokar, author of the book Mobile Web 2.0.

Vendio Services last month launched Widgipedia, a central repository for users and developers to create widgets across various platforms, said Rodrigo Sales, Vendio's co-founder and CEO. Widget adoption is being driven by the increasing popularity of social networks where millions of novice users want to customize Web sites, according to Sales. "Widgets have given novices the ability to have robust content and customized functionality within these Web pages without having to become Web developers," he said. "It democratizes the Web."

In addition, Sales said that some developers are creating widgets that can be used to generate revenue. A small portion of ticket sales for a desktop widget that allows users to buy movie tickets without going online goes back to developers, Sales added.

Alex Blum, CEO of KickApps, which provides a hosted service for companies and consumers looking to set up social networks, added that some of his clients are finding that custom widgets can drive more traffic to their Web sites than search engines do. "[Users] are likely to become interested in taking a piece of this [Web] experience with them as they go elsewhere on the Web, and they will deposit that," he said.

KickApps this week plans to roll out a new type of widget that can function as so-called rich media programmable units, or widgets with rich media like video that is sponsored by an advertiser, he said.

For example, a widget branded by Budweiser could include Dale Earnhardt's image (Earnhardt drives Budweiser's NASCAR car) and videos of him racing or speaking, Blum added. "The content is compelling because they see this association with the brand. Now you've got this community of Dale Earnhardt NASCAR fans dropping your ad on your behalf everywhere on the Web."

Todd Masonis, founder and vice president of products at Plaxo, a maker of widgets that use e-mail address books to send messages to multiple recipients, said the technology fulfills the promise of Web services and service-oriented architectures by letting users manipulate content and data without development experience.

"Widgets are really Web services plus a user interface that are prepackaged and take no hassle to install," he said. "The moment we turned our Web service into a widget where anyone with no hassle could put that on their Web site took off dramatically. Hundreds of Web sites overnight started putting them up."

Jeff DeGraff, a business professor at the University of Michigan, noted that widgets adoption is unlikely to spread too far until developers can figure out how they can be profitable. "It will be very difficult to translate this to a for-profit model," he said. "Widgets will have more residual value like building a brand by driving people to a Web site that sells pizza."

However, DeGraff said he is intrigued by the potential for multiple widgets to be linked together via open source to help simplify traditionally complex workflows -- like those faced by a researcher at a biotechnology or pharmaceutical company trying to develop a new drug. "A widget could be a little desktop ticker noting what patents in a particular area have been filed," he said. "Or, it could be a real-time data stream from the FDA on developments with the multiple drug compounds you may be following."

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