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Enwidget: Dashboard - under the hood and where we're headed

Niall Kennedy

Infamous web, widget, and all around technology expert Niall Kennedy's got a new column: Enwidget, where he'll explore the ins and outs of the rapidly expanding universe of glanceable information applications and devices.

We all know that Apple Dashboard widgets give your Mac something of a heads-up display, combining multiple sources of information in a single at-a-glance interface. But while Apple introduced its desktop widget platform in 2005 as part of Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger), what you may not have realized is that the concept far predates even OS X, going way back to the dawn of the Macintosh itself.

In 1981 Bud Tribble and Andy Hertzfeld brainstormed desk ornaments, describing "little miniature applications running in their own windows" inside the old school Macintosh operating system. These tiny tools extended the desktop experience beyond applications and their associated computing and screen real estate costs, placing small and undemanding tasks in the background for productivity and pleasure. Today's Dashboard widgets build upon some of the same ideals introduced 25 years ago, obviously updated for modern networked computing.

Apple Dashboard widgets often play the role of merging the desktop with the web, but to dig deeper, each widget runs inside of a protected web space built on top of the WebCore framework (essentially a miniature version of the Safari web browser). Dashboard widgets are built using some of the same technologies you'll find within most web pages: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and images (PNG preferred). Advanced widgets step beyond the browser and take advantage of local computing resources and operating system commands. Your Dashboard widgets might leverage your graphics processor using Quartz Extreme, check your current battery status, or execute shell commands.

As anyone who's ever used a widget before knows, their practical utility is near-infinite. The ability to engage an alternate display for glanceable personal and public information -- accessible by a single hotkey -- expertly merges utility with convenience. Probably a lot like you, I have the usual widgets checking the weather forecast, keep track of package delivery status, and keeping me up-to-date with my favorite soccer teams, as well as a few business-minded ones checking my web server and database status, outstanding invoices, and project progress.

Changes in Leopard

Apple OS X 10.5 (Leopard) Dashboard introduces some big (and very welcome) changes in widget composition and execution. New widgets will have access to all of the latest technology available at the operating system level as well as a few new tricks specific to widget authoring and consumption. Here are some things we can expect later this year:

Web Clip

Web Clip in Safari for Leopard adds widget authoring features directly to the browser chrome, letting any user highlight a section of any web page for display within a personal widget window. The WebCore rendering engine fetches the appropriate web page for each widget behind the scenes, displaying only the small piece of the page you specify. Steve showed this off clipping out a daily Dilbert comic straight from web page to customized Dashboard widget.

.Mac sync

Most Dashboard widgets store custom data such as your ZIP Code, stock ticker symbols, or a favorite sports team. Dashboard for Leopard can synchronize and backup your widget preferences using a specialized Keychain and your .Mac account. You no longer have to reconfigure your widget environment on multiple machines.


Dashcode is an integrated development environment designed specifically for Dashboard widgets and its composite parts. The application builds on top of the Xcode interface with specialized authoring and debugging tools for HTML, JavaScript, CSS, Quartz, and web feeds such as RSS and Atom. Authors can customize a pre-existing template for their blog, podcast, or photo stream, or write their next widget from scratch in a well-tested environment.

Dashboard isn't the only desktop widget platform in town, but it's pretty clear just how robust it is compared to its competition, and it certainly boasts has the largest developer ecosystem of active desktop widget-makers. Next time on Enwidget we'll explore some old favorites and new classics on the Dashboard widget scene; in the mean time, here's a little gallery whet your appetite.

Gallery: Apple Dashboard widgets | 11 Photos

Niall Kennedy is a well-known widget researcher. He organized the first-ever widget conference in November 2006 and the first research reports on the web widget space in February 2007. He is currently Principal at Hat Trick Media, building new tools for the social web.

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