• The Tiger Report: Widgets? Who Needs Them?

    December 17th, 2005

    It seems strange that widgets would assume a terribly controversial status among Tiger’s features. After all, they seem benign enough. Just a press of a key, and you can check such things as the current temperature in one city or several, whether a package you sent has been delivered and the speed of your current Internet connection. One widget I encountered may be a great candidate for “useless utility of the month” status. All it does is repeat the phrases you type in a voice and convoluted syntax reminiscent of the Star Wars character, Yoda. Truly it does!

    Yet, some of the folks I’ve interviewed on the subject, during episodes of The Tech Night Owl, have made it quite clear they can live without Tiger’s Dashboard feature and be perfectly happy.

    So why should this be? What is there about Dashboard and the thousands of widgets now available that convince some people that this is a better idea gone bad? Well, it could be the fact that some of these widgets aren’t programmed very well, so they suck up memory with excess enthusiasm. And even if they use a reasonable allotment of RAM, having too many opened at the same time, even if you haven’t brought Dashboard onscreen, can cause performance problems, especially if your Mac is a little light on memory.

    Perhaps it was the early lapses on the part of Apple in the initial release of 10.4, where a widget could be installed without your knowledge or approval. That may have been the source of a potential security leak, and has since been corrected. But that’s long ago and far away. Today, if you download your widgets via Safari, you will see prompts asking if you want to install and then keep it. With other browsers, a double click on the actual widget will initiate the installation process. Doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.

    It could be, of course, that some are upset because Apple cribbed the idea from the developers of a third party utility, Konfabulator, without granting credit or royalties. On the other hand, Dashboard widgets are programmed differently. In essence, they are Web pages without the browser. It doesn’t sound very offensive to me, although I would feel more than a little upset if I had a shareware utility that was supplanted by Apple.

    I suppose the real issue is whether a widget has any particular value once the novelty wears off. I can see where it might be convenient to bring up, say, a dictionary screen when you’re a little spelling challenged, as most of us are. But applications have spell checkers, and, besides, you could just as well keep Apple’s Dictionary application in the Dock, a click away from access when you need it. In fact, widgets are basically single-function applications, doubtless descended from the original desk accessories of the Classic Mac OS. Launch the ones you want to use, and have them all show up at the same time, without having to hunt and pick the one you need at that very moment.

    As for me, I haven’t gone too crazy installing widgets, except for the brief period when I was actually reviewing Tiger. I rarely consult the listing at Apple’s site, which numbers around 2,000 these days, nor the ones that show up at software update sites. But when I do, I enjoy the novelty for a couple of hours, and then get on with my business. That Yoda widget, for example. It’s cute enough, but it’s easy to fool. There is no Jedi Master equivalent, in fact, for the phrase “get back to work.” Oh well!

    But there are times when a widget is nearly indispensable. My wife asks about the weather as she’s getting dressed, and a press of the F12 key delivers the response. When I ship a package by one of the overnight carriers, I take a quick glance at the Package Tracker widget for the information I need. A phone number? Well, that telephone directory channel from Sherlock has missing in action, so a widget will do.

    Then there are envelopes. Back in the days of System 7, my favorite envelope addressing utility was Easy Envelopes+. I had it in use for years, well into the era of Mac OS X, where it still functioned fairly efficiently from the Classic environment. From time to time, I’d ask Andrew Welch, head of Ambrosia Software, if he ever thought about bringing it back, but he was always noncommittal. Well, a Dashboard variant is here, and it’s free. It may lack some of the flexibility of the original, but it works and it’s good enough for occasional use.

    Now that I think about it, there’s a new widget that monitors the download levels for Firefox. Now why would I really care about the moment-to-moment stats? Why indeed! Oh well, might as well download a copy and check it out. Then I can get back to work, and begin to wonder, anew, just why anyone would bother with Dashboard.

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