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All About Widgets

Everything to know about mobile, desktop and Web widgets.

The word widget (pronounced wih-jit) is a tech word that has many definitions depending on the context being used. The dictionary defines a widget as a small mechanical device; a gadget, or a manufactured item that is unnamed, but in the era of Internet and computers this definition doesn't fit when talking about widgets in relation to software and code.

What are Widgets?

In a programming context, widget is a generic term for the part of a GUI that allows the user to interface with the application and operating system. Widgets display information and invite the user to act in a number of ways. Typical widgets that you may encounter include buttons, dialog boxes, pop-up windows, selection boxes, windows, toggle switches and forms.  The term widget also can be used to refer to either the graphic component or its controlling program or a combination of both.

Today when people use the word widget, in a Web 2.0 world, they are referring to piece of self-contained code — a small application actually, that opens up a doorway to a much larger application.  To this end, you can find widgets that provide stock quotes and news, search boxes for Google, eBay and other popular search-based Web sites, clocks, counters, games, feeds and more.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that widgets used on the desktop or Web are also called gadgets. In fact, in Windows Vista, Microsoft uses the word gadget, but it is still a widget.

Is a Widget an App?

Widgets and applications do not mean the same thing, but they are similar terms. In mobile computing, for example, we tend to think of widgets and apps as "objects" that enhance the user experience.  Mobile widgets provide a simple interface to display live feeds (e.g. weather or stock news). Apps are full applications that typically require mobile users to pay and download -- things like games, contact and calendar apps, and so on. Widgets can be thought of as "miniature applications" that are embedded in other applications on your mobile device.

Example: A live local weather news feed would be a widget that is embedded on your mobile device home screen (the home screen is the application).

Desktop Widgets

Many widgets are designed to run on your desktop —  a small application that provides specific information to the user, and can be functional or fun. If you're using the Windows operating system, you can use a widget engine and then choose widgets to install to your desktop. Popular desktop widget engines include Dashboard, which was released with Mac OS X v10.4, Google Desktop, and SpringWidgets. 

What is a Web Widget?

Advancing on desktop widget technology, Web widgets are another type of widget that has gained in popularity, especially with the increased interest in personal publishing. Web widgets are pieces of code that you can embed right on to your Web page, or personal publishing space such as Blogger or WordPress.

Web widgets work like a mini-application that you use to provide information to visitors on websites. They include things like search widgets, eBay trackers, news headlines, Twitter feeds, Facebook friend (or Fan) lists, games, clocks and other miniature "live" apps.

Web widgets are easy to use and require you only to copy and paste a snippet of code to display the widget, which is hosted on the developer's server. Widget directories, such as Widgetbox enable you to search for a specific type of widget, customize it for your own use, then copy and then paste the code to your own pages.

Widget Development for Beginners

Many widget tools help developers create innovate widgets and are useful novices as well. Widgetbox's free developer services offer analytics for tracking, services that allow consumers to use your widgets on their own site and popular blogging services, hosts the widget and also take care of including options that let you customize your widget.

For the Mac community, Apple Dashboard Widgets are created using a mix of HTML, JavaScript, and CSS. The Apple developer connection provides tools and resources for Dashcode that can be used by interested developers.  There is also an Android Dev Guide to help you develop applications for the Android platform. Microsoft also offers a Dev Center to help you build Metro style apps for Windows 8.

Did You Know...

The first document usage of the word widget is attributed to the1924 play "Beggar on Horseback", by George Kaufman and Marc Connelly. [Source]

Based in Nova Scotia, Vangie Beal is has been writing about technology for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to EcommerceGuide and managing editor at Webopedia. You can tweet her online @AuroraGG.

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