Tech for the rest of us: Widgets
Every Monday, right here on WalletPop, I'll feature an easy-to-use hack, gadget or service that can really make your life better, saving you time, or saving you money. Geeks, technophiles and early adopters have plenty of other places to look for hot new technologies to try. Here you'll find technology for the rest of us.
What the heck is a widget, and should you be checking them out? Well, widgets are small pieces of code that run a small, specific service (a small application, or a data feed from a third party website) for you. Some people call them applets.
Since the kind of service a tiny widget can serve up to you is limited only by the coder's imagination, the widget ecosystem, particularly in the last several years, has really exploded. And while there are a lot of useless widgets out there, there are also a host of widgets that can save you time and money and add to your life.
People have been embedding widgets in web pages forever. But if you're not a code jockey, then you'll want to head over to iGoogle, Pageflakes, or Netvibes. These are usually billed as customizable start pages. Each of these services (and many more all over the internet), let you drag and drop widgets to a start page of your own and keep the widgets gathered there for you.
But what can you do with these widgets?
With iGoogle you can keep a to-do list, track the weather, use a calculator, and see what local gas prices are and that's just a quick start. These all sit on a start page that you can log into on any computer. You can move the widgets around on the page to where you want them, and you can create tabs to organize the widgets. You can also put a widget on iGoogle that lets you check Travelocity for the latest cheap fares.
Pageflakes has a lot of similar "flakes," their word for widgets. You can get a to-do list, or sticky notes, you can follow RSS feeds for various blogs, or check your email. The same goes for Netvibes. Pageflakes also has a widget that lets you capture HTML or other useful widgets and take them back to your Pageflakes page, so it is certainly versatile.
Many people set up a start page that checks their email, shows their calendar, the top headlines of the day, has a search bar, a to-do list, and sticky notes for capturing thoughts.
Now, I can't miss telling you about Facebook's widgets. Facebook opened up to third party developers who made widgets that let you ask your friends questions, created top friends lists, and other interactive, social types of things. But I find it much more convenient to use a Facebook widget on any of the previous start pages and just pull your Facebook info into them.
There is another class of widget that has you install a program on your computer and lets you run a widget on your desktop. Konfabulator, which was purchased by Yahoo! and renamed Yahoo! Widgets, is available for Windows and Macintosh. After you download it, you can download a staggering array of useful widgets that run on your desktop.
For example, FareCompare Tracker keeps track of airfare costs to various U.S., Canadian, and international flights. Sonic, the restaurant chain, has thoughtfully developed a gift manager. Daily deal website Woot! shows you their latest deal in a widget. You can search Pricegrabber. Or use Shop.COMpaninion.
Apple's contribution to the field has been called Dashboard, which is built into OS-X. Apple has a list of useful widgets, but no doubt the most useful feature is the ability to select a portion of any webpage you see that you'd like to make a widget, and snag it. I've already used that several times to create my own custom widgets without any fuss.
Whether you use an online start page, or a desktop version, widgets are a nice way of keeping track of something without devoting a whole web page to it, or getting a large program. Whether it is nimble, space saving, tiny windows scattered in the background of your desktop or on a single web page you open, widgets are becoming a part of the computing landscape for many people.
Tobias Buckell is an author, freelance writer, and professional blogger.