Widgets to the Rescue

These handy mini-apps serve up content—fast

On a recent visit to the San Jose Zoo, I made a beeline for a family of meerkats. You know, the ever-vigilant and undeniably adorable relatives of the mongoose, title species of the popular Animal Planet television show? I never miss an episode of Meerkat Manor. So, no surprise, I returned from the zoo with a camera-full of snapshots, which I quickly uploaded to Flickr. Within minutes, anyone who visited my Facebook and MySpace profiles could view my pics of the 12-inch cuties, all thanks to a little application called a widget. Whether you are as taken with meerkats or not, you’re sure to love these mini apps. Quite simply, a widget displays Web content from external sources and can be embedded into a blog, social network, or other Web page, or downloaded to your desktop. With widgets—sometimes referred to as gadgets—you can insert video into a blog post, display slideshows on MySpace, get the weather delivered to your mobile device, drag-and-drop your Netflix queue into iGoogle, and much more. There’s even a widget for Meerkat Manor, which displays a video preview of the upcoming episode and fun facts about the Kalahari-desert dwellers. You’ll find one on my Ning and Facebook pages. Widgets are also free and relatively easy to use. The one problem is there are just so many from which to choose. The following is a quick tour of widgets, along with some picks (in bold, with corresponding links listed at the sidebar at left) to help you get started.

Widgets on your desktop

Desktop widgets are downloadable programs that you install on a computer in order to receive automatic updates of selected content. For example, more than 300,000 people have downloaded the Day Planner widget by Yahoo! With this tool, your daily events and to-do lists from Yahoo! Calendar, iCal, Outlook, or Sunbird will appear within a small, interactive screen on your desktop. There are 3,000 Apple Dashboard widgets, the most popular being the weather forecast from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). You’ll find more than 4,000 Windows and Mac-compatible applications in the Yahoo! Widgets directory. Designed for desktop use only, these apps cannot be embedded in Web sites such as MySpace or Facebook.

On the Web

Still more widgets can be used in Web sites and social networking profiles and do not require installation or download. These gadgets may be found in a variety of places online, including social software sites. YouTube, for instance, provides a piece of HTML code that can be copied and pasted into a site or blog. This embed code, which appears to the right of any YouTube video, is the means by which millions of clips are now being shared on the Web. The hosted storage Web site Box.net allows its users to share folders of stored files for others to download including PDF files, spreadsheets, presentations, and other documents through a widget. As with YouTube, a Box widget can be placed on any Web page, blog, or social networking profile simply by pasting in the related code. Want to chat live with Web site visitors? With the Meebo Me instant-messaging widget, you’ll get a personalized IM window to do just that. There are also Web services that help users create their own widgets to upload photos, videos, and other content to social networking communities. Slide is one that lets you easily create custom photo slideshows and music videos that can be automatically uploaded to profiles on MySpace, Bebo, and other social environments. The most popular Web widget in the world, Slide drew more than 117 million site visitors per month in 2007. That’s 13.8 percent of all Web users. Similar widget services include RockYou, for creating talking photos, audio shout-outs, and music vids, and Photobucket, which lets you create remixes of photos, video, and music, as well as over 30 different types of image slideshows. Social networks offer their own widgets for use solely within their communities. Take Facebook applications. Since Facebook launched its developer platform in May 2007, enabling third parties to create widgets for use within the social ecosystem, over 80 percent of members have used at least one of the 11,000 little gadgets. One such application is Flixster Movies. Used each day by 1.5 million Facebook users, Flixster lets members compare their film preferences with those of their friends. Other social networks with their own widgets include Bebo, LinkedIn, and Meebo. Google’s new OpenSocial initiative will enable developers to create widget applications that can be used across many social networking sites. With personalized start pages, you can access your favorite Web content simply by opening your browser. Available through services such as iGoogle, MyYahoo!, Netvibes, and Pageflakes, this customization uses widgets to import news, Flickr photos, del.icio.us bookmarks, Google Docs, Twitter accounts, and email. The Netvibes collection has over 111,000 widgets to choose from and Pageflakes a whopping 230,000. Major blogging applications, such as TypePad and WordPress, have their own widgets. For example, Typepad bloggers are able to sell items directly from their blog through a PayPal Storefront widget and WordPress authors can display their favorite songs and music stations using a similar Pandora tool. Widgetbox and LabPixies are directories that aggregate a variety of widgets. Widgetbox lists nearly 30,000 gadgets within such categories as Media, Information, Fun & Games, and News.

Library-related widgets

Libraries have caught on to widgets in a big way. Several institutions, including the Atlantic Public Library, have added the LibraryThing widget to their Web sites and blogs. This gadget—from the social-cataloging hotspot for book lovers—displays tag clouds or cover art for up to 200 random or recently added books from a user’s library collection. The University of Michigan Library, among many others, has created a Facebook application for searching their library catalog, while the Birmingham Public Library has a catalog search widget in MySpace. Patrons can easily add these widget applications to their profiles so that they may search the library from within these social spaces. For its part, the University of Texas Libraries has developed a gadget for the iGoogle start page. This one searches the library’s site or catalog and provides library news and useful links. The North Carolina State University Libraries and several others have followed suit, creating their own Google start-page widgets. Across the pond, the Dublin City Public Libraries has taken advantage of the Pagecast feature in Pageflakes. This feature allows members to make their start pages viewable by the public. Now patrons can access library-created content all in one place. The Libraries’ Pagecast includes widgets for the institution’s Flickr photos, events calendar, press releases, audio lectures, contact forms, catalog search, and library links.

Create your own

Once you get rolling with widgets, you might want to devise your own. One of the easiest available tools for this purpose is the Blidget, or “blog widget” creator from Widgetbox. Designed for use by bloggers, even average Joes, Blidget involves absolutely no programming. Users need only type in the URL for their blog and choose setting and formatting options. Blidget authors can follow additional instructions in order to transform their gadget into a Facebook application. More advanced options include Yahoo!’s Konfabulator tool, which provides developers with everything they need to create desktop widgets. And Google Gadgets invites developers to read their Getting Started Guide and begin coding to create widgets for the iGoogle start page.
A reference librarian at Columbia University’s Butler Library, Ellyssa Kroski is the author of Web 2.0 for Librarians and Information Professionals (Neal-Schuman, 2008).

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