PITTER PATTER OF LITTLE BIG STEPS
Back in May, when Apple released its newest version of Tiger with its new-found Dashboard feature, I'd posted on a company called Konfabulator (aka Pixoria as jkontherun reminds us), which had started the whole Widgets thing on the Mac in 2003, and recently on Windows.
I'd suggested that Windows user may want to download Konfabulator's software and widgets to get a major "Mac-like" feature for their Windows PC. (The entire post is presented below at the end of this post, for reader convenience).
The reason for this re-visit is that Yahoo! announced that it has bought the small software 3-person start-up. The picture on the left is from Konfabulator's site, promising something "big".
Much of the reaction is from the Mac-oriented press, highlighting how cool this is since it implies that Yahoo! might finally make more of its services more Mac-friendly, an area where Yahoo! has not focused on to date.
While I think that is certainly one of the outcomes of this acquisition, I find the move interesting for a number of other reasons. Let me count the ways:
1. COOLER YAHOO! USER INTERFACE FOR YAHOO! EVERYWHERE: First off, it means Yahoo! is getting really serious about sprucing up the user interface for ALL of its services on not just the PC platforms (Windows, Macs, etc.), but also other device given the Konfabulator architecture.
Yahoo! services will potentially also take on a "cooler, gee-whiz" look and feel, a distinct departure from the "don't fix it if it ain't broke" approach Yahoo! has taken for most of its applications and services over the last decade.
2. BORROW A PAGE FROM GOOGLE'S PLAYBOOK: Actually, two pages. First this move allows Yahoo! to counter some of the "Cool, gee-whiz", Ajax-driven software coolness in some of Google's newest applications and services like Google mail and Google Maps.
Second, by making the otherwise $19.95 Konfabulator application, FREE for all users to download, Yahoo! follows the Google move of making application software free or much lower cost after an acquisition. They did both after the acquisition of photo management software company Picasa, and on-line mapping software company Keyhole.
It's all good, because this is the new model as applications evolve into online services. Software applications are transitioning in some cases, from a "pay by the drink" model, to a services model that are subsidized by other revenue streams like advertising, sometimes complemented by subscriptions. It's a new day for consumer software applications everywhere.
3. UNINTENDED POKE MICROSOFT'S EYE: Along with Apple as well, but that's not important right now. By making this move, along with the moves made by Google to date in rolling in a lot more applications into it services portfolio, this move simply accelerates the BIG MOVE of applications from the user desktop to the network.
4. MORE DEVELOPER FRIENDLY APIs TO YAHOO! STUFF: The incorporation of Konfabulator technologies into Yahoo! also potentially enables more, better, and easier to use programming interfaces for third-party developers into Yahoo! content, applications, and services. Again, this is an extension of point three above, in that software developers are increasingly focused more on network based application and services than desktop based ones.
In that context, portals like Yahoo!, Google et al (where, oh where is AOL??), along with other major application specific sites like eBay, Amazon, etc., are all increasing their focus on opening up their APIs to the outside world, for win-win development of new, cool services for their customers. The execution challenges here are both technology and business model driven.
As Rags Gupta aptly points out the problem in a post responding to my hypothetical piece on Amazon starting a blogging service,
"Problem with this approach, as with opening up personals ads from dating sites, is that it kind of disintermediates the site hosting the reviews. If I can pull reviews from a site without having to visit it (and thus being able to easily see their ads or purchase their stuff), the site loses revenue from this."
These business issues do need to be sorted out, and fast...and the solutions won't be hard technically or otherwise, once there is a big enough potential market for multiple parties to co-benefit.
We're moving to a world where the actual device and/or computer is less important than getting the precise application or service you need, when and where you need it, and on WHICHEVER device you need it, simply downloaded quickly in the background. That's what this widget stuff has to the potential to enable.
On a geeky note though, I do think both the Konfabulator and Apple version of widgets, while cool and potentially very userful, do potentially increase the security holes on a PC, and can eat up a lot of computer/device resources in the background if not properly designed and optimized.
For instance, Apple, in its rush to introduce Dashboard as a cool feature of Tiger, failed to provide an easy way to turn-off, manage, and uninstall widgets from the computer, causing a fair amount of confusion for mainstream users. Third-party widgets managers have cropped up, and Apple is rumored to roll out a widget manager of its own soon, but it's not a satisfying experience, especially in an "Apple" product.
Here's hoping that Yahoo! pays extra attention to these issues while adopting/adapting these technologies for Yahoo! users everywhere.
In the meantime, if you're curious about Konfabulator, do check out their web site. They also have a clever cartoon walking you through their history from start-up to today.
As a side note, it's funny how they never mention Apple introducing Dashboard as an operating system feature, thus "pushing" them from an exclusive Mac application-focus, to the Windows platform in the first place.
I guess even cool start-ups aren't immune from revisionist history.
THE PREVIOUS POST ON KONFABULATOR BACK IN MAY:
For those of you Windows PC owners who might be feeling left out while your friends with Macs boast about the latest OS X Tiger upgrade on their PCs, don't despair. Because of some unintended consequences of Apple's actions, some of that Tiger look and feel can be had on Windows machines.
Tiger has many terrific features but one of the coolest looking ones is Dashboard (click image for larger picture). Dashboard is a new programming layer that sits on top of the operating system, and allows third-party developers to create mini-applications called widgets, of course, that can do specific things like a small flight tracker, or stickie notes, or a calculator. There are hundreds of these available already, with more coming every day.
The cool thing about most of the widgets is that besides providing cool, specific functionality, they exploit the graphics capabilities of today's Macs, and now PCs, to provide really beautiful, 3D, animated applications that please the eye. You can see an animated demo here on Apple's site.
Although Apple hasn't acknowledged it, Dashboard was likely inspired by a similar idea implemented exclusively on Macs a couple of years ago by a small Mac developer called Konfabulator. They created a software product that allowed other developers to create widgets for Macs.
The effort was well-received by Mac developers, and quickly became popular among Mac early adopters. Well, Apple noticed the success of this software, and announced its similar looking Dashboard initiative as part of the next upgrade to OS X.
This well-done and comprehensive Tiger review at Ars Technica has a lot more of this Dashboard/Konfabulator history, and the controversy, but the end-result to date is that Konfabulator moved its efforts to the Windows platform in addition to Macs.
Well, Jobs' loss of a cool developer's exclusive focus is Gates' gain (click picture for larger image). You can download a trial version Konfabulator for Windows, and then check out these cool widgets on your Windows machine.
Now we'll see if Microsoft incorporates a version of this in its next Windows (Longhorn) and call it "Cockpit" or something...
ah well, the Konfabulator lads could then move to conquer the world of mobile devices...