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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mobile widgets - who wants them?

Maybe I'm missing the point, but I'm starting to think that the fascination that the mobile apps industry has with "widgets" (small Internet-connected applications) is misplaced. I'll happily confess that I haven't looked at the sector in huge depth yet, but on first sight there seem to be several weak logical connections in the whole premise. The argument seems to be go something like:

1) Phones are small with small screens
2) Therefore small applications are good, especially if they only take up a small amount of screen space
3) Phones don't have much memory, but are getting better browsers & faster/cheaper data connections
4) Therefore using some sort of central widget "engine" and UI framework makes it easier to have lots of widgets on one phone rather than lots of native applications
5) We want to sell lots of mobile advertising in future
6) Therefore having some sort of closed widget environment (but based on reasonably open standards) with built-in advertising functions gives us a great channel to the mobile user
7) Most "normal" people don't like installing native apps on phones. And developers don't like the fragmentation of platforms.
8) Therefore make a 'library' of mini-applications to enable people to search for and "discover" widgets and download them, working across lots of handsets.

But frankly, based on recent experiences, I can't see where the customer demand lies. I can see why the industry would like widgets to be adopted. But I fail to see why end users are going to be bothered.

In particular, there's a whole range of issues that are unsolved:

1) I still see no evidence that "normal" people want to "discover" stuff to download to a handset. Yes I know that umpty-million people are using iPhone app store, but they're not "normal" in a 3-billion-mobile-users sense of the word.
2) Always-on widgets are battery-killers. And given that different phones (and different networks) have different optimal methods for power-management, the whole abstraction / single-platform notion falls flat on its face. I could fry an egg on my Nokia E71 if I leave some widget stuff running in the background.
3) Based on my (admittedly limited) experience playing around with things like Widsets and Yahoo Go!, widgets are slow, clunky, and make a big song-and-dance (hey! rotating icons! wooo!) about doing basic stuff that could work perfectly well on a normal browser web page.
4) Browsers are getting *much* better. Many of the current widget tasks can be adequately performed with a decent set of bookmarks and RSS functionality, or using server-side aggregation of web services onto a single home screen.
5) Is there actually any evidence that widgets are popular on PCs? I can't remember seeing any newspaper articles about how cool they are. They're certainly not in what I'd call "the popular consciousness" in the same way that (say) Skype is, or even mobile broadband / 3G dongles. Vista's low uptake rate won't have helped either.
6) Wearing my "end user" hat, widgets appear to offer the same stuff that could be done in the browser, but with less flexibility (how do I delete that Yahoo! Entertainment default widget?) but with greater amounts of intrusive advertising. Hmm, let me think about this.
7) Widgets are at the mercy of the handset network connection manager, in dealing with intermittent coverage, use of 2G vs 3G vs WiFi, policy about data access while roaming and so on.
8) Typically there's lousy integration of widgets with the native functions of the phone - especially the dialler, the phonebook & SMS. This might get fixed with initiatives like OMTP's BONDI in the medium term.

As I said upfront, maybe I'm missing the point. I haven't really followed this area in great depth, but that also means I haven't absorbed the hype & groupthink. Or maybe this whole mobile widget thing is just another self-delusional ruse, dreamt up by the mobile apps industry to convince itself that massmarket end-users are actually interested in putting 101 bits of random software on the phones.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

tend to agree... a list of bookmarks does the same thing, but is easier to use.

some of the operator portal pages do a reasonbale job with them. e.g. by offering in-page updates of your ebay status. Check web'n'walk page on t-Mob for example.

Anonymous said...

Iphone 3G users downloaded 10 million apps in 3 days. If marketed in the right way and sold on the right device, I think mobile apps have a future.

Chris said...

Where do I download the Nokia E71 egg frying widget. That one sounds useful.

Anonymous said...

Dude,
Did you read the news. 10 MILLION iPhone users downloaded apps in 2days after the 3G iPhone launch. This isn't only 3G iphones by the way as referenced in an earlier comment. All iPhone users can upgrade to 2.0 and download apps. Get an iPhone and meet others with iPhones. This is a Geoffrey Moore "Tornadoe" phenomenon.

technofox said...

Widgets mean different things to different people. Using the iPhone definition (i.e. App Store apps) they provide a very easy way for users to find, download and install applications on their phone (whether web driven or not) and this is a significant trend.

PC desktop widgets/gadgets may be lightweight eye candy but in the mobile device context they may just be the optimal way to develop a vibrant mobile applications ecosystem and advance the mobile internet.

Dean Bubley said...

The Apple App Store is primarily about native apps, not widgets.

What it is with Apple devotees that make them go out looking for perceived slurs, even when what's written isn't relevant to them? All the fanboy thing does is to make the device+ecosystem look deeply uncool. If anything, it's one of the reasons why truly *massmarket* downloads won't occur.

And on this 10m number, so far we don't have any detail on the mix of paid vs. free apps, nor on the distribution across the user base of iPhones & iPod Touches. Was it 10% of hardcore Apple users accounting for 90% of the downloads? What % of owners downloaded zero apps? How many did *you* download personally?

TechnoFox said...

Dean its worth clarifying the widget definition thing here. Widgets in general can be native apps or otherwise and are as much about a dynamic, user configurable UI than web code connected or not.

I would use the term "web widget" to cover the type of app you were reviewing (AJAX driven or similar) and in that case I agree with almost everything you said for their use on a mobile device. But mobile widgets that are native apps on the right device are very interesting and today the most obvious example is the iPhone.

I will leave the fanboy debate to the other posters as I am not one and don't have an iPhone (but have used them and will probably get one just to explore this trend).

Dean Bubley said...

Technofox - thanks.

I'm a little confused here, as mobile apps installed on handsets aren't exactly new, but have never been referred to as widgets in my experience.

There have been J2ME and S60 and Windows & Palm apps available on phones for at least 5-6 years, plus more recently on Apple & some Linux devices, with Android on the horizon.

I'll absolutely that Apple has made installation of such native apps much easier (compared to Symbian or Windows) - although I still don't think that many "normal" mobile users will be interested.

However, that is pretty much disconnected from the widget thing, which is much more tied in with AJAX etc.

It may be that some people have different definitions, and we'll see some blurring over the next few years anyway, but I perceive clear water between "Widget" and "Mobile App" at the moment.

Most "Mobile Widget Engines" are themselves downloadable applications.

TechnoFox said...

We can probably blame the iPhone for the blurring at the moment. It will be interesting to see the level of download from the App Store over the next 6 months now that the initial excitement is over (and also, critically, how much money changes hands).

If it is reasonably successful then the challenge for the industry is to follow suit and this is no small feat given the proliferation of device platforms out there.

On a personal level I must admit that although I am an early adopter and have owned (and still do) devices spanning all the major platforms I rarely install 3rd party apps because I either don't easily stumble across them or when I do it is a hassle and I just don't bother. I think the iPhone model would change my behavior but I want the equivalent on the other platforms too. It would be an interesting test to see if you did the same - you just need to blag an iPhone from someone!

Anonymous said...

a widget in this context is clearly a web app (ajax). stuff like nokia's widsets is pretending to to be a widget, but is really a native app.

widgets in (mobile) browsers will get some play... but screens are small... you might just as well use a list of bookmarks.

native apps can be very good Nokia maps, internet radio, etc.

there's a thriving ecosystm for S60 and it's very easy to install apps, either through PC suite, wap push, email atachements, or direct of web pages.

Anonymous said...

widsets pretty much sucks, btw

tomsoft said...

I think tht you have summarized most of the "pro" in favor of mobile widgets.

Now, form the end user point of view, there is no real difference between browser, and widgets. What we wants, and what widgets provide, is a synthetic view on his digital life: no need to open numerous service and web site to know if you have a new email, or if there is a new sport news, or if there is a change in traffic conditions.

The way it's implemented (application, web browsing, etc..) it's a technical things, and impact the user experience, but does not mean that there is no interest in mobile widgets.

On the desktop, the equivalent is more iGoogle than Yahoo!Go: a personalized home page, or a personalized view on your internet life, available on multiple support, web and mobile for instance.

And that's what Webwag is podividing!

Anonymous said...

The way you lay out your argument is not very clever. You contradict yourself in 4) and 8) In 8) you are saying that you cannot natively integrate with the phone functionality. Web pages such those you favor in 4) can do even less of it. (for simple security reasons).

jo said...

Yahoo bought Konfabulator widget engine in 2005 - this probably helped make the concept of widgets (albeit for the desktop) familiar to the mass market. It was only a matter of time before the widget frenzy extended to mobile. Yahoo's revamped mobile offerings now include a mobile widget gallery: http://mobile.yahoo.com/gallery