Switched On: Apple wanes in the widget wars

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

One of the challenges for companies trying to build across the "three screens" of the television, PC and cell phone is adapting their distinctive technologies to those platforms. Apple showed strong early momentum on the Mac with its widget architecture, but is falling behind some rivals in bringing glanceable utility to other platforms.

Introduced with Mac OS X Tiger, Dashboard widgets (or "gadgets" as Google and Microsoft call them) are small, simple applets intended to convey quick bits of information or provide a quick change of settings. Veteran Mac users recognized them as the reincarnation of desk accessories, which provided functions such as an alarm clock and note pad when the Mac could run only one program at a time. Apple aggregates thousands of widgets on a special web page, and Leopard brought a new feature called Web Clips to provide an easy way for consumers to create their own widgets from part of a Web page in addition to the more traditional Dashcode development tool.

Dashboard earned its own button on the Mac keyboard. It drew some criticism due to its modal nature, but its ability to quickly display or hide a screenful of widgets without having to mess with window arrangements made it more convenient than the gadget implementation in Windows Vista and even Windows 7, which has freed gadgets from the Sidebar and now displays them on the desktop -- a throwback to the Active Desktop feature of Windows 95.

When Apple launched the iPhone, it suggested that the device featured widgets, but they were there in name only. Some of the functions such as weather and stock viewing mirrored their Dashboard counterparts, but they couldn't be invoked without disrupting the active app as they could on the Mac. This is particularly unfortunate because, like the original Mac with its desk accessories, the iPhone could benefit greatly from having a way to view some simple information when another app is active. An iPhone implementation of Dashboard must be one of the ideas being kicked around the iPhone development team.

As Apple promotes the tens of thousands of applications available for the iPhone, competitors are rushing to circumvent the breadth and depth of the iPhone app library by bubbling information up to the top. If device functions are buried in an app that requires too much work to access immediately, the platform that dies with the most apps is still dead.

A strong example is Android 1.5, which increased widget support, and gained the kind of advantages versus Apple that eventually led to the departure of Google CEO Eric Schmidt from Apple's Board of Directors. Google plays second fiddle on the desktop in the widget wars to Apple and Microsoft, but it now has a strong widget portfolio across the PC and Android devices.

HTC may not call its Sense screens widgets, they embody the notion of bubbling important information to the top -- similar to what HP does in its TouchSmart PC user interface. Nokia is turning to widgets to help differentiate its flagship N97. And far beyond the niche of high-end of smartphone operating systems, Samsung and LG allow you to drag widgets from toolbars on select touchscreen feature phones.

Finally, there's the living room, where Apple's fallen even further behind. As I wrote last week, one reason Apple would have interest in an integrated video tablet would be to have more control over the display than it can with Apple TV, whose outsider status makes it difficult to implement TV widgets effectively. Meanwhile, high-volume TV manufacturers Sony, Samsung, LG and Vizio have adopted the Yahoo! Connected TV widget platform, itself based on the Konfabulator platform that was an early Mac widget architecture.

No company is yet excelling at widgets across the TV, PC, and cell phone, but deploying widgets on non-PC platforms is more of an imperative since consumers are often more actively engaged in other content or communications as they use the device. Ultimately, Apple should embrace widgets as a pillar of its three-screen strategy. In the short-term, though. simply making iPhone widgets live up to their name would deploy the power of these simple programs to ameliorate the complex challenges of smartphone multitasking.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.