widgets to the left, widgets to the right...
For a long time I really couldn't get into widgets. I found them too clunky for the functionality they offered - a bad ROI. Konfabulator in particular was not kind to my aging PC's performance.
But then two things happened: I got a second monitor at work and installed some Opera widgets. So no I use a few widgets - some obvious stuff like the weather and the fuzzy clock; plus some very niche stuff like Stay Secure.
The extra monitor was a no-brainer - that just gave me extra room to have widgets in view. The real kicker was having the widgets piggyback my browser - something I'm running all day anyway.
With all the options out there for widgets, Opera has two big advantages going: first, it doesn't require a whole new platform on your computer. If you have Opera, you already have the platform. Second, they're cross-browser and from what I'm told will ultimately be cross-device as well courtesy of Opera Mobile.
Opera have put widgets right where you've already installed software - you can just hit widgets.opera.com and away you go. Of course, if you have OSX or Vista you might choose their widget offerings for much the same reason.
spoiled for choice
So anyway, I know I'm late to the widgets party. But there are an awful lot of users out there who haven't even heard about them yet, or just don't really know where to start.
It's a classic barrier to adoption: widgets sound techy and more than a little geeky; there are lots of competing options, with no clear differentiation for the casual observer; and you have to install stuff before you really know whether you want it.
I was trying to give someone a "quick overview" of widgets a couple of weeks back. I dashed off what was supposed to be a quick email. It took a whole screen just to list and describe the widget engines I could remember off the top of my head (don't look at me like that, they actually needed the info - I wasn't doing a misguided geek braindump!).
If you're an average user, you probably don't even modify your browser settings - much less install add-ons, widgets and customisations. There are plenty of users out there who haven't really got their heads around XML feeds. Can you imagine their confusion trying to figure out widgets?
Then from the publisher's perspective, with all these options how do you pick a widget to release?
don't look now, it's another cowpath thing
Realistically you have to offer widgets wherever people are already using them - even if it is still a wide range of options with small user bases. If someone's not using widgets yet, chances are they're not going to be starting just for you - they'll keep using whatever they're already comfortable with, even if that means visiting your site randomly via in-browser bookmarks.
About the best thing you can do is find all the widget engines you think have a decent user base and release a widget for all of them. With all the quirks and weirdness, you could be spending a lot of time making widgets.
it's like we need a standard or something
A standard format would definitely be useful here - something like the Netvibes Universal Widget API (hat tip to Lachlan for that one). It remains to be seen whether UWA will become a standard, or if everyone will just publish their own "standard" leaving us no better off than before (RSS anyone?).
people are tired of beige boxes
Perhaps widgets will encourage more average, non-geek users to customise their computer. I've observed over the years that a lot of people really are nervous about using computers, while others are simply disinterested. I have a vague theory that only fear could drive someone to put doilies on a computer monitor, but that's probably more about my view of doilies ;)
I don't think fear is too strong a word - people are still worried they could "break the computer" by pressing the wrong key. It doesn't help that current affairs TV spots regularly scream about privacy and security online.
So anyway - whether they're afraid or just ambivalent, a lot of people don't get much enjoyment out of the computer. Even so there's a good chance they're stuck using it all day at work anyway.
giving the humans a look in
Being able to whack the weather, traffic report and your favourite newsfeed right on the desktop gets people to engage with their computer a bit more. It lets them get useful information (or fun, useless information) and gives a simple opportunity to make the machine a bit less threatening (or boring). The computer might be forcing them through the agonies of spreadsheets, but it can also tell them they need an umbrella at lunchtime and to avoid the freeway on the way home because it's backed up for miles.
Sure you can get that info from websites, but widgets are right there already. They're little bite sized bits of web.
To think of it another way, widgets are about the user. They're generally free, most of them are still free of overt advertising. They just fun, or useful, but most of all personal. It's technology which actually does something nice for the humans. Which is a nice change.
So anyway, there's a lot of potential in widgets - if only users can be convinced to use them. Here's hoping a clear standard format emerges to make it easier to give the people what they want...