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Resurgence of Widget Conversations in 2011?

September 30th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Hub and Spoke

Photo Credit: Hofstra

AddThis announced support for sharing of HTML widgets today which led us to post about their announcement. Originally, this post was going to be a review of the AddThis HTML widget sharing service. The news was good for widgets and those interested in widgets; from users to developers to marketers and publishers.

As we began writing about the impact of the announcement and thinking about the widget sharing service, we reflected on the widget space as a whole and some thoughts of late began resurfacing. The various thoughts, questions and ideas prompted us to rethink and change change the post entirely. This is now a generic look at widgets and the possible resurgence of widget conversations in 2011.

This is pure speculation and we are obviously biased towards this view. Indulge us, read the post and let us know what you think.

Brief History

Since the rise of widgets back in 2006 and 2007 (2007 Year of the Widget), we’ve seen a steady decline in the buzz around widgets. Clearspring, the company who acquired AddThis in 2008, was originally founded as a widget syndication platform in 2006. As a leader in the space, we saw Clearspring aquire AddThis, shift focus and shutdown their LaunchPad widget platform earlier this year. Facebook, Twitter, Mobile, Geo and Apps (Facebook, Mobile, et al.) dominated the news for the last couple of years. Widgets have virtually left the conversation altogether, even though widgets still live on as desktop widgets, video players, Facebook plugins, AddThis tools, ads and various other names and services from numerous companies for a variety of platforms. Widgets exist, they just aren’t talked about as much.

Facebook, what do they have to do with widgets?

What originally got us thinking about the future of widgets was a string of roadmap updates from Facebook regarding their application platform. Some key items were the removal of the Profile Boxes, Boxes Tab, Application Tab on the user profile and the move to iFrame on application canvas pages. These changes coupled with Open Graph and the move to iFrame raised a question, “Why even bother with a FB App?” Obviously there are reasons for wanting to develop a fully integrated user experience for FB users. However, for many, there’s no longer a clear strategy regarding Facebook Apps as Facebook continues to change their stance in regards to their application platform.

Not only are the Facebook application platform changes in play, but Facebook itself has been pushing their own widget strategy. Just take a look at the Facebook Social Plugins and JavaScript APIs. Call them plugins if you want, but they are still just copy and paste drop-in widgets. Back in the day, Facebook and My Space were the large pools of users that widgets were meant to syphon from. Now, Facebook is taking a page from that playbook and syphoning users (probably more accurately Traffic and Content) into Facebook. This reminds us of the Hub and Spoke model Lawrence Coburn wrote about back in early 2008.

What does this mean? Maybe it’s time to consider the following. Integrate your site with Facebook and Open Social to drive traffic to your site rather than to the Facebook application canvas pages. Take a cue from Facebook, don’t make your app canvas pages on Facebook the hub. Instead, turn your site into the Hub and make Facebook a Spoke. With the FB platform changes, you would need to convert to an iFrame based app anyways. So, save some overhead, drop the application canvas pages and apply the freed cycles and resources towards developing widgets to increase reach in other areas and markets.

Mobile

One would think widgets have no place in the mobile space. However, we believe there are inroads that can be made. Mobile devices can range from phones to tablet devices. Some are capable of a full web browser experience and some are not. Though, a properly architected, designed and developed widget would require very little overhead to configure and deploy for various devices. With a well conceived widget backend, one can deploy the widget to be usable as a web widget on supported web broswers for Andriod and iOS based devices. On the iPhone and iPad you can even design an offline capable widget utilizing HTML5 with offline storage and Home Screen Icon to mimic an iOS native app. If needed, a fully blown iPhone app can give the fully integrated user experience while leveraging the existing backend services and APIs that are already supporting the various widget deployments.

Desktop and Set Top Boxes

In the foreseeable future, widgets in one form or another will continue to exist and be deployed across platforms. Whether it’s on Windows, Mac or even Set Top Boxes for televisions, much like the mobile space, this space is constantly changing. Since you can leverage your infrastructure, why not take a look and deploy widgets in these areas to increase reach. Here’s an example of the ever changing consumer electronics landscape and the move towards internet enabled televisions with support for internet widgets, “Sony wings ‘W’ LCDs with Yahoo widgets.”

Web

The web will continue to grow and everyone from individuals to groups to companies will have an online presence. As this continues, so will the need and use of widgets. Widgets have been around, are still around and will continue to be around. We’re just not talking about it. The fundamentals and value haven’t changed and are still applicable. Facebook Social Plugins, YouTube videos, Twitter’s Tweet button and AddThis sharing tools are just some examples of existing widgets in use. Don’t write off widgets just yet.

Back to the AddThis HTML Widget Sharing announcement, a Shell of its Former Self.

This takes us back to the beginning, the AddThis announcement. It only goes to show that widgets are alive and well. There is a need for them and they serve a purpose. It’s good to see Clearspring come back to this, even if this current release is a shell of its former self, in comparison to the LaunchPad widget platform.

We did take a quick spin with a widget we had already developed. The widget already supported sharing with AddThis, Open Graph and JavaScript code. To enable the new AddThis HTML widget sharing service, we only had to add 3 HTML tags (2 meta and 1 link) and 1 JavaScript config value to the existing AddThis code. It was simple, quick and worked as expected, with one exception. The documentation was not clear regarding HTML iFrame widgets and the required width/height meta tags that should be used. You actually need to use the video_width and video_height meta tags. This caused a little confusion since it was not documented as such. Once we overcame that hurdle, with 5 minutes of work, the widget is now shareable to the supported new HTML destinations; Windows Gadgets, OS X Dashboard, iGoogle, Netvibes and Xanga.

This is a pretty good step, despite not being close to what LaunchPad was. We have no idea if Clearspring intends to ever replace LaunchPad so the comparisons may be moot.

Conclusion

Does anyone really care? Probably not, but we do. More likely than not, widgets will continue to live in the background and the conversation will continue to revolve around the hot darling technology or company of the moment. It doesn’t help that widgets go by other names like plugins, gadgets, apps, etc. We just hope that the small groups of us will carry on in this space as if it still mattered.

If you’ve gotten this far and read the entire post, we want to let you know that this post was just our attempt to throw things out there to spark conversations more so than a serious analysis of the widget space. ;)

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