Sunday, May 31, 2009 - On Widgets and The Web

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Widgets are identified as the next hot "app" by many in the digital media industry, and from an upcoming video episode of "The Blog Report With Zennie62" created by Producer Sierra Choi, widgets were the talk of the Digital Hollywood conference in Santa Monica. But what are widgets? Why are they important?

I recently had the pleasure of visting San Francisco-based There, I talked with Ryan Spoon, the Vice President of Marketing for the company, a visit faciliated by my friend Steve Kloft, a Widgetbox consultant whom I call "The Legendary Steve Kloft" for his Internet marketing exploits.

Our interview, captured in full in the video that accompanies this blog, was aimed for those who've never heard of "widgets" and don't know what they do. And after our talk, I was treated to a look at Widgetbox's "hack day" staff preparation. But first, a few observations about the culture of the company itself.

What I like about Widgetbox is the same for almost every Internet company I've ever visited or been involved with in some way: it's fun. There seems to be this standard format where the staff is a mix of the techy programmers and the people doing other business functions in one place - programming is not outsourced.

Also, Widgetbox, like many Internet firms in the Bay Area, is "young" not just in age - three years - but in that the staff is young. All of the Widgetbox people I met looked to be in their 20s and 30s. And, of course, there's always a remote staffer or two, in Widgetbox's case, in Boston. There's a dry-erase board with notes on whatever, and in general an open, freeform environment of people who really seem to like what they do.

What's a Widget?

According to Spoon, widgets are "portable pieces of content on the web." Any content that can be shared on a website, a blog like this one, or a social networking page like Facebook. (For the reader, "content" is anything posted in a website for your consumption: text in a news article, or photos, or videos, or sound as in a music podcast.)

The idea with widgets is for you to not have to go to a particular site to see that site's content. Regarding their value to society, "Widgets help with communication," Spoon says, "Communication can mean you pulling in content: SF Chronicle, ESPN, that can be my personal blog. It also allows two-way communication, where people taking content and putting it in places where it can be read from both sides. That would be Facebook."

Spoon talks about Widgetbox's most popular product, "The Baby Ticker", shown here:

The Baby Ticker is an interesting device that allows one to establish a countdown to the birth of an expected child; an animated baby actually grows in a "womb" in the widget itself. Spoon says "three-quarters of a million" people have downloaded the widget since its creation.

Widgets play a central role in the establishment of "web-portability" and many data-aggregation companies are "widgetizing" their services. For example, I use news widgets on the blogs in my network, including, Oakland Focus, and the NFL Business Blog. Those widgets consists of the headlines of the day from other news organizations. So you don't have to go to those sites to get their news. You can "pull" their content from the widget; on the other hand, the maker of the widget is "pushing" their content to you using the widget. This is a widget made for me by Widgetbox consultant Steve Kloft for me, and is a combination of all of my most accessed feeds, from to, CNN, and

As you can see, the widget serves as a portable one-stop place on the web which can be embeded anywhere and as many times as possible, up to millions of times. Anyone who has a website that subscribes to a feed, or a blog site, or videos or podcasts and place (or "aggregate") their feeds to one widget of their own design.

Because of this portability of online information, widgets serve as a threat to the idea that people will go to one place on the web for news or information: that's less so and widgets are driving this process of fragmentation even as much as RSS(Really Simple Syndication)feeds.

Spoon says that site traffic (called "hits" on the street) is always going to be important in this era of web-portability but the business model is different, and there has been talk of micropayments (Which I personally think is a terrible loser of an idea and I'll explain why in a separate post.). "News is based on what my network is telling me is popular, or what's relevant to me", he says "If the content is good, ultimately you can do a lot with it."

Spoon then used his personal widget from his blog as an example of Widgetbox's latest product "Blidget Pro."

As Spoon explains, "what is appearing here is RSS". What appears on Spoon's widget is what he wrote on his blog, yet the widget is here in this blog post; again, we don't have to go to his site.

The propagation of widgets actually increases total traffic to the main site. The widget serves as a kind of satellite website. But if the widget's not monetized you don't make money from the increase in traffic. That's the problem facing content producers from newspaper organizations to bloggers.

A Tour of Widgetbox on "Hack Day"

After my talk with Spoon, I was introduced to the staff of Widgetbox and the company's founder and Chief Technology Officer Giles Goodwin who walked with me and talked about the staffers and "Hack Day." As the video shows, the staff sits in a closet-set group of interlocking desks with computers and rolling chairs that facilitate interaction. The group consists of programmers specializing in Java, and Ruby, and an operations manager and web designers, support and "user interface" specialists and content developers (which calls for a knoweldge of HTML and Flash coding).

The day of my meeting was called "Hack Day" where the staff members works on their individual projects for the entire day (rather than other work), then presents them to each other at 4 P.M. Some of the interesting work includes a new way to embed widgets into websites and a new search system. That reminded me of a visit to Pixar in 1996 when I worked for the Mayor of Oakland and the digital animation firm was based in Richmond, CA (it's now in Emeryville, CA). Pixar, known for its creative staffers, had a similar kind of Friday event which was part happy hour, stage theater, and "hack day."

Widgetbox is one of several companies in a segment, widgets, of a growth industry, digital media. As more publishers and now television networks move online following the growing number of people who get their information from the web, there will be more ad dollars moving toward web-based sources. While widgets may fragment information on the web, they open new opportunities for revenue-generation and usher in a new era of digital media.

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