Tech: Welcome, Year of the Widget

Sean Stroupe has a fairly typical MySpace page in that it's fairly atypical. His profile is tricked out with a song that plays whenever his page is reloaded, two slideshows from recent parties, a couple of YouTube videos that caught his fancy and an audio message from his mother, posted with just a twinge of irony. "You want to make it as interesting as possible. Or as fun," he says of customizing one's profile. Millions of MySpace members dress up their pages with videos, music, photos and more. And the technology that makes it all possible is so easy to use that, like Stroupe, many MySpacers didn't even know they were using it. But each movable part of Stroupe's profile is there thanks to a widget. Get used to that word.

If you sit in front of a computer at work, chances are there are certain Web sites that you monitor throughout the day, every day—to check e-mail, weather, stock portfolios or sports stats. But, thanks to widgets, taking multiple steps to track down headlines in one place and then check your e-mail in another may seem woefully outdated this time next year. These mini-applications—also called "gadgets"—are simple bits of code, easily dragged onto a desktop or pasted into a personal page, where they are constantly updated with whatever information you want. "It's the exact opposite of what the Web used to be," explains Om Malik, a tech journalist and founding editor of Last month Malik and Niall Kennedy, another tech blogger, organized and hosted Widgets Live—an entire sold-out conference devoted to the topic (in, where else?, San Francisco). "Widgets," he says, "bring the Web to you." Think of it as tech jewelry—bling for your blog; ice for your desktop.

If 2006 was all about social networks, user-generated content and YouTube, then it's a fair bet that 2007 will be about further personalizing life online. Already, portals like Google and Yahoo! offer customizable pages. Want to see a calendar, learn a new word-of-the-day and check local windsurfing conditions all from your homepage? No problem, you have thousands of widgets to choose from. And the fact that they're so intuitive has made the features very popular. "The Google personal homepage is the fastest-growing Google product," says Marissa Mayer, the company's vice president of "search products and user experience." "This market is going to be very large."

This has not gone unnoticed by content providers. Old-media juggernauts like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and ESPN have begun allowing users to design the page they see when they log on., the photo-sharing site, lets its members create a "badge" that they can post on their blogs and personal home pages to let friends know when they've uploaded new snapshots. Last month, Fox Interactive Media (comprising all of Fox's sites as well as MySpace, and launched its own platform, called SpringWidgets. Not all of this is great news for mainstream media outlets just yet. Steve Rubel, a senior marketing strategist at the Edelman public relations firm, points out in his personal technology blog MicroPersusaion that widgets could signal the end of the page view as a metric for measuring a site's popularity. If you read a local news story through the Google Reader, for example, the local paper will not register the hit. This could create skittishness among some content providers. "Media companies love to promote how many page views their properties get," writes Rubel. "They've used the data to build equity. They will fight it tooth and nail to protect it, perhaps by not embracing interactive technologies as quickly as they should."

But don't expect the gadgets to go away any time soon. Widgets will be prominently featured in the two big operating systems due out this year. In spring 2007, Apple will release the newest version of its Mac OS X operating system, codenamed "Leopard," which will let users build widgets from scratch and share them with others, even if they've never written a line of code. Vista, Microsoft Windows's new operating system, will come with 11 "gadgets" out of the box and also offer users the ability to build more and upload them to Windows Live. "I think we'll be seeing thousands and thousands of these mini-programs," says Gabe Dorfman, a Microsoft product manager. "They are pretty cheap to develop, don't require advanced coding skills and are super-easy to use for the end-user as well."

This, of course, is music to advertisers' ears. Target has a gadget that counts down to Christmas; Wrigley's sponsors a Winamp media player that looks like a pack of gum; UPS has a package-tracking widget. Purina put its name on a weather widget —to let users know if it's nice enough outside to take Spot out for walkies—that was downloaded more than 15,000 times in its first two months. This may seem like a paltry audience for two months of advertising. But consider the fact that the Purina logo now sits on every one of those 15,000 desktops, smack in the users' line of sight. "It's better than advertising," says Om Malik. "It's in front of your eyes constantly; that brand becomes your brand." Your widgets certainly don't need to come branded, however. Indeed, that's the whole point: to help the World Wide Web become your Web.