February 12th, 2007

Will Widgets Hit A Mainstream Wall Just Like RSS?


There are many interesting similarities between widgets and RSS:

  1. Fantastically flexible distributed technology
  2. A boon for information junkies and power users
  3. Difficult to explain to a non-geek
  4. Name is complete opaque to average, mainstream users
  5. Difficult for average, mainstream users to understand why it’s so cool
  6. Huge technical savviness barrier for average, mainstream user adoption

Erick Schonfeld has an interview with Netvibes CEO Tariq Krim about the future of widgets, which is mostly laudatory, as most posts about widgets are, although Erick does take an interesting look at some of the current limitations with widgets (and at what will happen to online advertising).

But I was struck by how widgets, like RSS, are really more of a boon for online publishers than for average folks. Widgets, like RSS, are great for syndicating information, or in the case of widgets, also application functions. But for average users, they are only useful for aggregating on a start page, and really, how often do most people change their start pages?

The inability of anyone to explain widgets or RSS in terms that the average person can understand is really striking. Here’s Erick’s definition of a widget:

Let’s begin by understanding what widgets are. The reason we are seeing widgets all over the place is because the Web has become programmable. It is now possible to separate the underlying data of the Web from the presentation of that data, which means that one Website’s data can be presented anywhere

It’s a great definition, but most people I know outside of my blogging life would have no idea what this means.

Interestingly, Jeremy Zawodny had a post today on why he hates widgets, including concerns over security and site performance (e.g. crashed TechCrunch).

One exception to the mainstream limitation with widgets might be the younger, more tech savvy generation that is used to programming their MySpace pages. But for the average person over 30, there’s a good chance that widgets, like RSS, will remain a black box, not worth opening.

Now, none of this means that widgets, like RSS, won’t revolutionize the world of web publishing (although I’m skeptical of Tariq Krim prediction that widgets will kill web pages) — it’s just that it will be transparent to the average web user.

  • Insightful as always Scott :)
    Manual trackback from a man who has a love/hate relationship with Widgets/Gadgets/Whatever you call them!


  • I don't think it would be fair to compare the two. RSS Revolutionized reading. Widgets work more as an addition to your already existing system.

    However, widgets do have a long way to go, because of the ease of adding things to your site/blog without hard coding.

  • Not just load times, either - that stupid javascript blog roller on the Blogger login page slams my dual-core Athlon in Firefox. I had to find an alternate page (https://www2.blogger.com/login...

  • Scott, thanks for picking up the discussion. You are right, definitions everyone can understand are important. I didn't spend a lot of time defining widgets in my post because the first mention of the term links back to a lengthy earlier post where I do define it for the average reader. That said, I did describe it this way in the more recent post:

    A widget is a tiny application or piece of a Website that constantly streams new information to you.

    Maybe a better short definition would have been::

    Widgets are tiny applications that automatically push all sorts of data from the Web (like weather, headlines, Flickr photos) to your desktop or personal Webpage, and allow you to interact with those other Websites without actually visiting them.
  • Widget load times are a problem. But let's not forget that the average Internet user (if still discussing mainstream adoption of widgets) will have a higher tolerance for page load times than Internet power users, such as the people who visit this tech blog.

    Would you rather have instantaneous page loads, or widget functionality that helps to make a visit to a URL so much richer? (Has a never-ending plague of 404 really affected MySpace?)

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