The future of browser widgets


My definition of a widget: a small web application inside your browser. Opera has had widgets for a while now, and I’m sure Firefox has a plugin which provides similar features. But what is the future of widgets?

I’m a widget developer – I have made quite many widgets and even made money with them – yet I don’t even use any widgets. A lot of more “techy” users I know don’t use widgets either.

Is the feature which was introduced with much noise going down the drain?

A look at widgets

There are many, many useful and fun widgets, but how many of them are actually the kind you would find regular use for?

Let’s think – take the most downloaded widgets from Opera’s Widget page:

  • touchTheSky: a weather widget. Will display your various info on the local weather. I downloaded it back in the day, but do I use it? No. For me, it’s much easier to take a look out the window and check the temperature from my “old school” meter sitting on my windowsill.
  • SimAquarium: your very own aquarium inside your browser. I have used this one too, but not much. It’s an interesting little toy, but unless you are a real aquarium fan or such, it’s not much of a useful tool or even a game. It has potentional, though: I can imagine using something like this as a screensaver.
  • Analog clock: A clock widget sounds useful in theory, but in practice it doesn’t work. Most of the time, you would want your widgets stay on the desktop so they won’t obscure anything you are working on. But how often do you actually see the desktop? The clock on the OS taskbar is much easier and faster to check.
  • Video Downloader: this widget will let you download videos from sites like Youtube. This one could actually come in handy, but has a small issue. If you want to download a video, you need to copy the URL from your browser window, activate the widget and paste it to the widget. Yes, I might be nitpicking, but wouldn’t it be much easier if you could get a link inside the browser to download it? Or even a button on the browser, which would ask you for the URL, rather than having to activate the widget?
  • Stay Secure: A widget which displays the security rating of each browser. Might be interesting for a while… but really, is there something surprising that IE always has and probably will have the worst security rating and Opera the best?
  • Google Toolbar: Doesn’t even work properly.
  • Pandora Radio: listen to Pandora radio… but why do I need to have my browser running to do that?
  • Spirograph: draws funny shapes. Might be fun to play with for a while, but essentially useless.
  • Torus: a circular tetris game… Come on, who plays Tetris these days on their PC? This could work in the mobile phone version of Opera, though!
  • Panic button: One of my widgets. Basically a “boss key” tool for hiding whatever you were doing. While I can imagine some uses for this, why are you doing things that you don’t want others to see in a place where they could see that anyway?
  • Functions 3D: Nice if you’re a mathematician, but wouldn’t you require a bit more than just graphing functionality?
  • Scientific Calculator: This one doesn’t work either.

If I just dissed your widget, don’t be offended. These are all good widgets (except the ones which don’t work), but from my point of view, they don’t have any real use.

Typical issues

From the widgets I listed, we can find a few typical issues:

  • Dependency on the desktop: Most of the time, the place for a widget is on the desktop. Clocks, weather widgets and other things usually end up sitting on your desktop, hidden by the windows on top. To get access to the widgets, you need to stop what you were doing, do your favorite trick for seeing the desktop, check the widget and do your favorite trick to get back to what you were doing.

    This somewhat interrupts the flow of what you were doing. The windows clock in the tray for example, is always visible. Move your eyes a bit… and you see it.

  • Lack of functionality: Many widgets are just “one time fun”. They have some kind of a novel concept and they do something cool. However, this doesn’t make them reusable. No widget provides real functionality that isn’t already provided in a better way by a traditional application or a traditional website/webapp.
  • Usability: widgets such as the Video Downloader widget have a good concept, but they lack usability. This is partially caused by the fact (at least in Opera’s case), that the widgets can’t interface with the browser and its windows and what is inside the windows.

These issues are certainly from a power-user’s perspective. I want the things I do work as smoothly as possible. For a random web surfer, checking the desktop after doing something might not be an issue at all… but if you think about it, would a random web surfer leave the browser open after finishing? Nope.

So it’s a bit difficult to say. Does it work for power-users? Does it work for not-so-power users?

And another thing: Opera has a lot of users in the power-user group. The random non-techy user will more likely be using Internet Explorer or Firefox. Of course, Opera is clearly trying to target non-techy users too. I don’t know what kind of widgets Firefox has, but I’m guessing they have similar problems.

In some cases, the desktop issue could be solved by having more than one monitors. In those cases, it’s much more likely that you will see a part of the desktop on one of your secondary monitor(s).

How to improve widgets, then?

The way I see it, one of the biggest things is that widgets cannot interact with the main browser window. This should be changed ASAP – widgets could provide so much more if it would be possible to have them interact with the browser.

But giving the widgets that kind of features is not without problems. It could become possible to write malicious widgets, for example.

Opera has a feature called UserJS. This basically allows you to have scripts that are ran on the page automatically, such as a bugmenot script which could fetch logins for a site automatically if you doubleclick the page. There are also many UserJS scripts for changing how Opera’s forums look and behave to improve their usability.

If widgets could get similar access to pages as UserJS does, there would be so many new things you could do. It would start being more like Firefox’s plugins are.

The functionality-issue is not really solvable by anyone else except widget devs. Of course having the mentioned browser-interaction capability would help generate possible new usage types.

The desktop issue could be also solved with a dock/startmenu like approach. Dedicate some space from either side of the screen for widgets or perhaps display them when the cursor is brought close to the side. Personally I find this kind of behavior very nice: Things will not take space from the screen, but they are still easily accessible if needed, but it has to be done very well so that the appear-event isn’t too sensitive and make the items pop up too easily.

Summed up

You could say, that the current widgets are a good start.

Now, I tend to require more than just the basic features from most applications I use, but if someone doesn’t, the widgets could work for them. For me, they are a poor mans notepad/clock/tetris replacements.

Widgets need the ability to interact with the browser itself; to enhance the browser in the same way as UserJS or Greasemonkey scripts do.

The current behavior has two aces though: Opera Mobile and Opera for devices. Opera Mobile 9 will support widgets and mobile phones are often lacking small tools like these. It remains to be seen how well they will work on a mobile platform. The same applies to devices like the Nintendo Wii.