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Dashboard: Irrelevant in the age of iOS or gaining new life in Lion?


The blogging crew here at TUAW headquarters frequently gets inspiration from emails that we receive from developers and hardware manufacturers. As a perfect example, the inbox the other morning contained some information about an upcoming iOS app that syncs to a Dashboard widget. Fellow blogger Erica Sadun said she wouldn't touch the app, since "Dashboard causes me to break out in hives," and Kelly Guimont asked "does anyone use the Dashboard for anything?"

That got a lively discussion going on behind the scenes about whether or not Dashboard is even relevant anymore. As an Apple consultant, I can't tell you how many times I've been asked the question "What's that little speedometer icon for?" by new Mac owners who were afraid to click the Dashboard icon in the Dock. When I've shown those clients what Dashboard is all about, they seem underwhelmed. For me, I haven't used Dashboard since I set up my 27" iMac last year. Kelly mentioned that she has a delivery tracker and the Apple Remote Desktop widget installed, but that she "has yet to use" the latter. Most of the blogging team echoed those sentiments.

So, is Dashboard a Mac OS X feature that has outlived its usefulness? Most of our team members noted that when they need to run a small, single-purpose application, they reach for an iOS device. Whether it's a delivery tracking app, a weather forecast or a calculator, it's much simpler for many of us to reach for the iPhone, iPod touch or iPad rather than just tap the F4 key and bring up a widget on our Macs. Erica notes that "I regularly kill my dashboard processes to gain extra cycles for my computer. If it weren't such a hog, I'd call it inoffensive, but it's never been useful enough a feature for me to be compelling -- and yes, I have written a number of widgets."

Looking ahead to Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Dashboard hasn't disappeared. Instead, Apple seems to be trying to revive it in the upcoming operating system. Accessing the Dashboard in Lion is as simple as making a three-finger swipe to the right to expose the widgets, or a swipe and click in Mission Control to make it appear. Once you're in Lion's Dashboard, very little has changed. The widgets are similar to those that you may be used to, and you can download more of them from Apple's Dashboard Widget page.

A glance at that web page does give one the impression that Dashboard has seen better days. The most recent "Featured Download" was submitted to the Widget page on November 16, 2010, and the "Just Added" list in the Widget Browser shows the newest widget was submitted on February 14, 2011.

If I were to venture a guess, I'd say that many of the developers who may have previously spent their time making free widgets are now either writing iOS or Mac apps for profit. I don't blame them -- if I had the choice of developing a free widget that would languish in obscurity or hopefully making some money from my work, I'd definitely choose the latter.

My personal perspective is that Lion will probably be the last version of OS X in which Dashboard will exist. Thanks to the fast and easy launch of single-purpose apps through the Launchpad in Lion and the rapid distribution of those apps through the Mac App Store, Dashboard will soon go the way of Sherlock and other former Mac OS features that have now been relegated to the trash heap of history. What do you think? Leave your comments below.

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