This Fall the widget wars will move into high gear. The battle for the desktop is about to begin. And with Longhorn's XAML technology lurking in the distance (and Apple's Dashboard), widgets are likely to deliver a whole new era of desktop customization.
Widgets are essentially mini-applications that live on your desktop. What makes widgets different is that they tend to use less overhead by relying on an existing set of libraries that handle the drawing. As a result, widget developers don't tend to have to worry much about drawing their their content. This means that widgets are usually irregularly shaped and very cool looking.
The other thing that makes widgets special is that because there is usually an underlying set of libraries that handle a lot of the drawing which enables non-programmers can make them.
In the "old days" a software developer would create a program that happened to be skinnable and then skinners could come in and create graphics to skin it. Now, with widgets, the skinners become the developers.
Widget makers can often use scripting languages such as VB Script or Java script as their language. Others use a programming language (such as C++) to make "plugins" that serve as the widget. And a few can even do both.
For the purposes of this discussion I'm going to focus on 5 programs. And bear in mind, I work for Stardock which makes one of these (DesktopX) so while I'm trying to be fair to all, I'm more familiar with DesktopX. It is my hope that users will gain interest in this new evolution of desktop customization (i.e. widgets, no matter whose widgets, are good). It also means I'm going not going to talk about any perceived downsides. I'm going to focus purely on what makes them good.
The 5 programs I'll focus on are DesktopX, AveDesk, Samurize, Konfabulator, and Kapsules.
What's nice about widgets is that they can be used interchangeably. It's not like GUI skinning where you can only be running one at a time. A Samurize widget can be used with an Avedesk widget for instance without any problems. It's not an all or nothing scenario scenario.
DesktopX is the oldest of the group (released around 5 years old) which is both an advantage and disadvantage. It's an advantage because it has built up the largest user base over the years. It's a disadvantage because for most of its existence, it targeted Windows 95, 98, and later ME which aren't really suited for having desktop enhancements. The compromises made in DesktopX 1.x made it unappealing to some people.
DesktopX 2 changed that. DesktopX 2, which was redesigned for Windows XP, is relatively new and has a lot of cutting edge features. DesktopX exports its widgets as actual EXEs which makes them the ultimate in ease of use for end users. And widgets can still be imported into a DesktopX environment for modification and tweaking.
Some DesktopX widgets.
Some of DesktopX's advantages include:
- Integrated COM/ActiveX support. Your ActiveX controls (browsers, Office apps, Quicktime, Media Player) are treated like any other object.
- Unique animation engine. Just put a strip of images together, tell DesktopX how many frames there are and the speed and you have a fluid animation.
- It can be configured from a GUI.
- It includes a plugin model and a lot of plugins
- It can export its content as EXEs.
- It can be used to build desktops (so it competes both as a widget making program as well as a shell enhancer ala Hoverdesk or Talisman).
- Huge library of objects/widgets to draw on.
- Very easy to install/use widgets (just double click on them and they will run and add themselves to your widget/object library).
Konfabulator's future on the Mac has been made a bit murky because of Apple's decision to include Dashboard, a similar technology due for release as part of MacOS Tiger. Dashboard, while not quite the same, delivers much the same end result. Most of us who follow this market are convinced Apple saw the popularity of Konfabulator and decided to copy it as a concept. Apple's defenders have tried to retroactively give credit for widgets to Apple in the form of desktop accessories from 1984. A claim I consider absurd. But no matter what, the net result is that things might get tight for Konfabulator on the Mac. But how it might do on Windows remains unclear with so much entrenched competition.
Konfabulator widget examples:
Very straight forward in what it does: It makes widgets. No other focuses.
Can sit down and work on a single file (the .kon file) to create the widget.
Very high quality widgets included
Quality over quantity
On the Mac, it's really the only game in town until Tiger.
Very good marketing - it gets more press attention than the others combined.
Widgets (mac version) easy to use/run, just double click on them and they run.
Samurize is a VBScript run-time engine that includes powerful development tools for creating widgets. It also includes a great deal of functionality that can be easily plugged in. So if Samurize's developers have already thought of a widget feature (such as CPU meters) it becomes very very easy to make that kind of widget. And if they haven't added it, then it's just a matter of writing the VBScript or other code to get the functionality.
This means that Samurize is much easier than most of the other widget making programs to create some of the common widgets. It is really the leading app for creating system monitoring based widgets because it is so good as making such widgets easy for skinners.
Samurize Widget examples:
Advantages of Samurize:
The best widget development environment. The result is that it makes it much easier for skinners to create a series of widgets that go together. Note to developers - promote your editor more. This is your ace in the hole.
Fairly large library of widgets.
Lots of easy, built in system/network monitoring features.
No nonsense focus. It's not trying to deliver pretty but useless junk, it is for people who want to put useful monitoring things on their desktop with a minimum of fuss.
AveDesk is best described as docklets on the desktop. In fact, AveDesk doesn't call its widgets widgets but instead "Desklets" which I think is a better name than widgets. So I should probably explain what the heck a docklet is.
A docklet is typically a plugin for a dock program such as ObjectDock or Y'z dock. Imagine in a dock sitting at the bottom edge of your desktop with a CPU meter or weather monitor or clock.
AveDesk's author, Andreas, is one of the leading docklet developers out there. So taking these docklets and making them free-floating on the desktop is a fairly natural move. And best of all, it's compatible with ObjectDock docklets so all those ObjectDock docklets on WinCustomize.com can be used as widgets on your desktop as well. And so ObjectDock's popularity actually feeds into AveDesk's popularity (which is ironic since ObjectDock is made by Stardock who makes DesktopX and DesktopX can't use ObjectDock docklets as widgets at this time).
A lot of AveDesk's content is "borrowed" from Konfabulator graphic-wise (another reason why Konfabulator may have some trouble if there's a Windows version - it's going to be competing with its own content) (dwl: I am going by the screenshots I found on-line of how people are using it when compared to the screenshots of how people are using the others).
AveDesk widget (desklet) examples:
Advantages of AveDesk
ObjectDock docklets can be used as desktop widgets
Each desklet is essentially a skinnable application in itself (so third parties can actually make skins for existing widgets as opposed to creating a whole new widget).
While few widgets, widgets tend to be quite nice looking
Cool widget labeling features
Kapsules is the new kid on the block and it makes no bones about being similar to Konfabulator. It is, essentially, Konfabulator for Windows already in terms of functionality.
Kapsules does require users to download and install the .NET framework which does limit some users from using it. But the .NET libraries allow Kapsules to have more functionality out of the box (since it's being coded by one person, this demonstrates the power of .NET).
Advantages of Kapsules:
Strong focus: It makes widgets, that's it.
Very clean underlying design
Relatively simple to add widgets (drag the folders with the .widget extension into the widgets folder)
Unusually good documentation
So there you have it. These are the programs that have become popular for making widgets on the desktop. They can be used interchangeably. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. All of them have reasonably low hardware requirements. Widgets almost always use less memory than a stand alone program would. And each has their own loyal following who will tell you that their choice is the greatest thing since sliced bread.