Atomic experiments

Atomic explosion 

It was a pleasure to go along tonight to the final event of widget week, NMK’s Widget Nation (part of the Beers and Innovation series). The panel was Fergus Burns of  Nooked, Ivan Pope of Snipperoo, Matt Looney (who was chairing) and, slightly bizarrely, me. 

It turned out to be a very different evening from the Chinwag widget event, even though Fergus was on both panels. If the downside was a smaller crowd, the upside was that the whole setting felt more intimate. There were certainly more questions, and more open discussions, without the pressure of a 200-strong audience.

While the panel did spend a lot of time on definitions, we also touched on  broader topics with plenty of detailed discussion about copyright and monetisation.

All round, an enjotable experience, so many thanks to Ian for inviting me and for keeping up the excellent work.

PS: Unlike the last one of these I was on, I had been asked to prepare a little intro to me and my views. It came out very differently on the night but here’s what I had planned to say!

I’m from Conchango. For those of you that don’t know, Conchango is one of the biggest and best digital agencies in the UK.

I work in the interactive media department of that company. Traditionally that’s meant doing a lot of big sites for big brands. More recently it has meant lots of smaller widgets and lot of proofs of concept around widgets.

Quite a few of the people who are here tonight (including Fergus in particular) were at the Chinwag event last week in a slightly less salubrious pub about 500 meters away! Like all of these events we ended up in this strange quagmire where everyone had been talking about widgets for some time with relative confidence before some one put their hand up and asked what a widget was.

This would have been less worrying if they’d got a straight answer from the panel but there still seemed to be a fair amount of confusion.

One audience member suggested that widgets were the “bumper stickers of the internet”. Well I’m sure that’s a great definition of something, but certainly not of widgets.

While we try and define widgets using metaphor and simile, we’ll become unstuck. Widgets are a symptom, in my view, of a much broader shift in how we consume information and services.

We can call the new paradigm “atomization” and say that it is about streams of content being delivered seamlessly into new and alien environments – like the adwords that sprouted overnight onto just about every surface of the internet in 2003.

We could talk about the new paradigm being about personalization, users can now take just the content they want and see it just where they want it.

But the real shift is deeper than that. It is the resolution of all of the systems integration problems which made it difficult to deliver truly customer focused website solutions the first time round in “Web 97”. RSS does bits of that, and so does XML. Although personally I think it’s crazy that the public to know about RSS. It is like them knowing about SQL and C#.

RSS is just the tip of it, of course. For an industry that normally can’t agree on anything, it’s amazing that there are now shared paradigms in webservices, in APIs. There are standardized design patterns for cross site interfaces of all types. And this is why we now have mashups all over the place – both very publicly on the web, where you can see them, and more quietly in lots of back offices, where you can’t.

Widgets are a symptom of that. For a developer of a large website widgets are a way to get their services out there (in this respect content is a service). And that is why they are often seen as little more than affiliate marketing schemes; designed to return traffic to the mothership

From a pure developer’s point of view, widgets are a great way to expose one webservice or a number of webservices to users. They’re also often the easiest coding project in the end-of-year computer-science project.

But widgetisation isn’t the end game. It’s the middle game.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Last FM / MySpace widget. You go to Last FM and type in a few details and WHAM, they go and stick a load of javascript onto your myspace page, to make it look even uglier. Think the Last FM / Facebook integration will look like that? I don’t. I think it’ll be properly integrated to create a good user experience.

As with all significant technological improvements, users will adopt it when they hardly even know they’re doing it. We can’t very well make that claim now for adding widgets in Vista. It’s easier on or iGoogle but is still not easy enough for my mum.

So many widgets are born in the name of “branded utility” (the idea that brands should “do something” for their customers). But what good is a widget with all the utility in the world if only the uber-geeks can get the bloody thing working.

To install a third party widget on my desktop the other day for Nike + ipod, I had to agree to seven Vista security warnings- each with a bigger and more inflamed error message. And that was after spending 5 minutes finding the bugger.

Even then it didn’t work very well. No branded utility there.

Apart from poor usability (and to a certain extent, findability), what else will limit the spread of distributed technologies, not just widgets but general integration across systems and desktops? Well content owners are going to have to find a way to let go a bit, and yet still keep their eyes on revenue streams. If this means advertiser funded content, then we’ll have to find a way to make that acceptable. If it’s micropayments, then we’ll need much lower barriers to entry.

We hear the cries of foul play from Newspaper owners like the Telegraph about RSS content devaluing or ripping off their output. These sectors should look at what’s happening to music now and for the last couple of years. Don’t fight the tide, find a way to profit from what consumers want, because they will get it in the end.

Taking the broader picture of data and service integration, if we look at the medium term we’ll be seeing plenty of plays in Software as a Service from people like Google and Microsoft, and webservice integration will be a battleground, not because customers want to tailor the interface themselves or geek around with mashups, but because they just want it richer and more fulfilling.

On the flipside the idea of ‘download’ will become fairly meaningless with the speed of connection and the ability to install light, protected applications within the new operating system frameworks, or even straight within browsers will seem like a good, helpful thing for users. And we’ll start to see rich interface applications which again will be fully integrated but don’t just reside in the sidebar – ‘widgets’ plus.

My favorite prediction du jour is not just a facebook widget for my mobile phone, but a facebook app for my phone that replaces it’s current, annoying interface with one that tells me the status of whoever I’m about to call, their location and their last change of favourite film and all that. Think what we can do when we start thinking seriously about integrating these services quietly at the back-end rather than painfully on our desktops, phones and browsers.