My vision of the future for Windows Vista Sidebar Gadgets

From time to time I receive emails with questions about my gadgets and gadget development. For example, "How do I create a fly-out in a Sidebar gadget?" or, my favorite, "How do I remove your iTunes gadget from my Live Space?" I recently received an email from someone who, aware of my work in the gadget community, was looking for my perspective on the future of gadgets – Sidebar gadgets in particular. He sent me the following questions and, with his permission, I am answering them here because he raised some interesting issues about where gadget technology might be headed.

Q: Who do you think will be the most frequent users/downloaders of Vista Gadgets?

Before I get into the people who download gadgets, lets first examine some of the categories of gadgets as I see them.

  • Basic Gadgets – your standard "built-in" gadgets such as Clock, Weather, etc
  • Cool Gadgets – gadgets are related to music or "social networking"
  • Productivity Gadgets – gadgets that help you with your work day
  • Game Gadgets – generally simple games like Hangman or Pacman™
  • Seasonal or Special Event Gadgets – gadgets that have a a limited shelf life (i.e. a "Countdown to Christmas" gadget)
  • Ad Gadgets – provide enough functionality to wet the user's apitite and are meant to drive people to their website

Basic gadget users may not even know that other gadgets exist for download. Of those users who do venture onto, I suspect many are the cool gadget users. These are the same people who own iPods, text message more than 5 times/day and have actually use their video phones (i.e. your typical 16-24 year old).

The 9-5 business manager types either won't deal with Sidebar gadgets at all, or if they do, will move towards productivity gadgets, like this Outlook Info gadget.  

Then there are the techno geek blogger types that brag about the number of feeds that they read per day. I suspect these users won't be too interested in RSS feed gadgets as they simply don't provide them with the power they need.

Q: What type of Gadgets do you feel will be the most popular?  I know your Live Clock has been the most popular for awhile now.

Live Clock by LiveGadgets.netThe most popular gadgets that I see are those that do something that would normally require the user to open a browser and visit a website (e.g. email checkers, stock checkers, weather, etc). Gadgets are, after all, meant to be your "dashboard" to the information that you care most about on the web. Yes, I know that Apple calls their widget system "Dashboard".

I feel that seasonal or special event gadgets will always be popular. For example, I wrote a popular gadget that displayed the medal count for the 2006 Winter Olympics and another that displayed Superbowl commercials.

While game gadgets are fun for a while, I don't see them having much staying power. People will download them and use them for awhile, but will likely remove them once the newness wears off. Some of the earliest and most popular gadgets available for download has been the Sudoku and Poker Sidebar gadgets.

The continued success Live Clock (pictured above) has been somewhat of a mystery. For those of you who don't know, Live Clock was among the winners of the original "build a gadget for an Xbox 360" contest. I cut my teeth with Live Clock and it could use a bit of an internal overhaul. (note that LiveClock is a web gadget and not a SideBar gadget)

Watch the CommercialAllow me to go slightly off-topic for a while… Speaking of "clock", what really makes me chuckle is the Apple commercial (you know the one with "PC" and "Mac") where they discuss bundled applications. Mac talks about iLife and PC says "I have several fun apps bundled with me". Mac asks "Oh yeah, which ones?" and PC responds "Clock". I love that commercial!

Q: What types of companies will hire independent developers to develop Gadgets?  For what purposes?

I see companies hiring gadget development firms, like, to extend an existing product onto the gadget space. My experience and instincts suggest that most companies are looking to do this through ad gadgets. These gadgets are aesthetically pleasing and typically offer some form of limited functionality. For example, we did a gadget for Rhapsody that showcased their free Rhapsody Radio service. It offered limited functionality, but enough to pull people onto their website.

I also think that some corporations will see the benefit of custom Sidebar gadgets for their employees. Imagine a Sidebar gadget sitting on your sales reps' desktop that connects to your enterprise order entry system and show them open orders, new leads, etc.

Q: Do you feel Vista Gadgets will be better than Apple’s Dashboard or Yahoo’s Konfabulator?  Why or why not?

This is where the conversation typically turns into a flame war about "who stole the idea from whom" or "so-and-so's gadgets suck", so I will choose my words carefully. I've worked with most of the different "widget" formats out there and here are my thoughts on the ones you've listed:

  • Apple's design is sound and is based on standard web technologies. It is very popular among widget developers.
  • Konfabulator uses a proprietary XML layout format and not HTML and CSS. It was one of the first widget platforms out there and is cross Mac-PC compatible, so it has a lot of support. Personally, I find it a bit backwards if I haven't worked with it for a while. Now that both Apple and Microsoft have built-in OS support for widgets, I don't see a bright future for Yahoo's widgets.
  • Vista Sidebar gadgets build on similar web technologies as the Mac. It offers a rich set of API's that you can use. You can also extend this by use any scripting enabled COM interface. Because of Microsoft's dominance on the desktop, I see a Sidebar as a good choice for desktop gadget development.

Q: Among developers who aren’t supporters of Gadgets (either Microsoft’s or someone else’s) what problems do they see?  Do you think they’ll change their mi
nd over time?

Developing gadgets is no different that developing a modern web application by hand (not a web page but a full fledged Web 2.0 application). ASP.NET developers or other GUI type web developers (you know, the ones that don't know the difference between a <div> and a <span> and have really only just heard of CSS) will have a bit of a learning curve. Also people who can count the number of lines of JavaScript they have coded on one hand will have problems. The typical gadget could easily have over 500 lines of JavaScript.