The journal of Paul M. Watson.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Desktop widgets

Google Desktop #1 by Paul Watson

With the release of Google Desktop Google is entering the desktop widget market already populated by Konfabulator (now Yahoo! Widgets), Mac's own Dashboard and Desktop Sidebar.

They all share the idea of providing a system whereby widget makers, you and me, can produce little apps that are hosted inside the main app. These are either displayed spread across your desktop or as a bar on the side of your screen. Widgets generally bring in external information such as weather, news, stock prices, time-info and feeds, displaying it all in a small UI. Other widgets are more interactive such as todo lists, calendars, email notifiers and post-it notes.

They are mini apps; quick loading and often needed just for a few seconds to perform a certain task.

Frankly though none of these systems has survived more than a week on my desktop. They seem useful but ultimately fail to become part of my daily routines.

Take the weather for example. I have never understood the need for displaying on your desktop the weather outside your window. Even 5 day forecasts are rather odd to want floating about your desktop all day. Just who needs to know second by second what the weather is doing? If you need to know what the weather will be doing this Saturday then hit your local news website just once at the end of your day or switch on the telly. The appeal I think lies in that the weather widgets are pretty; Clouds, suns, rain drops and cute forked lighting. Ooooh, the weather is changing right this very second, better go rotate my crops.

Feed (RSS) widgets are also incomprehensible unless you have vital systems to monitor which spit out RSS. Reading more than one feed in a feed widget is crazy. We struggle with full featured apps like Bloglines or FeedDemon. Monitoring the news is barely a reason to have a feed widget.

Email widgets only work if they augment your email notification system. Having a list of emails in your sidebar is a bit pointless.

Calculators too. The Windows calculator loads in under a second, why bother with a bevelled, 3Ded, number-spitting monster that sits on your desktop all the time?

Power guages? Your laptop OS better already have that. Clocks that take up three quarters of your screen and actually tick? No comment. CPU and memory performance trackers? Come on, what are you, a sysadmin? If you are, you aren't going to rely on Konfabulator to monitor your big-iron. Photo panels? Use your desktop wallpaper or visit Flickr every 20 minutes or you will never get any work done watching the lovely cat shots slide by all day.

Right now the three panels I have in my Google Sidebar are Todo, Scratch Pad and Email. The email one is minimised because all I want is the notification gadget. Scratch Pad I have typed "Tet 123" in just to test. I may one day use it. The Todo list panel is quite handy, except it doesn't sync with Ta-da List so my Todo list is bound to my desktop and not available elsewhere.

The way this is going I'll be running Google Sidebar just to have the nice email notification widget.

Widgets I would use are; A todo list that syncs with Ta-da List. A calendar that syncs with Trumba (or iCal format). A feed-specific feed panel e.g. for BaseCamp project lists. A modified Quickview panel like Google Sidebar has, but better.

Of the two models, spread across your desktop (e.g. Yahoo! Widgets) and a sidebar (e.g. Google Desktop), I find the latter to be the best. I am not keen on the pretty but resource-intensive themed, styled and candy-coloured sidebars of Desktop Sidebar though. Yes, I could get a simple theme for it but Google Sidebar just doesn't support it and that means less to download, run, maintain and worry about. Also Google Sidebar gets the minimise option very right. It is not hidden in a context-menu, it doesn't leave anything behind on the side of your screen and when minimised (to your taskbar) a simple maximise/restore button puts it back on the side without any hassle.

I like the Google Sidebar system the best of all of them. But the widgets so far leave a lot to be desired. It is early days though. I am sure we will see a rash of pretty clocks, green power guages, complicated feed panels and thousands upon thousands of weather panels but I am hoping some genuinely useful widgets are also created. Alas the Google Sidebar widgets are not simple JavaScript and XML like Konfabulator; instead they use COM/ActiveX and require compiling with something like Visual Studio. Not terribly simple for anyone.

Desktop widget systems have a lot of potential and I welcome them. Right now though they are cluttered with "because we can" widgets rather than "because we need it" widgets.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure if Trumba has plans for a full-blown desktop client., a free alternative, has a simple client that will run in your taskbar. You can view/add/update your upcoming events with it, but it doesn't pretend to be a full-blown desktop calendaring application.

4:49 PM

Blogger Paul Watson said...

Thanks for the tip.

11:19 PM


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