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The race to claim the title of innovator
Published on July 1, 2004 By Frogboy In DesktopX

To be honest, at Stardock we've long considered people like Arlo Rose (who works on Konfabulator) as kindred spirits. When Apple announced Dashboard, which meant that they were essentially going to rip off one of their most innovative ISVs, I felt irritation towards Apple.  Apple claims to be incredibly innovative but in reality what they tend to do is find original concepts and then make them much more mainstream and polished.  This was the case with the GUI, the mouse, and other Apple "inventions".

DatebookAnd so we see the same thing with Dashboard. What it looks like to me is that Apple looked at one of its ISVs and saw something cool and decided to lift the whole thing and throw it into their next version. They even call these new things "widgets" which is particularly appalling. Konfabulator deserves credit for popularizing the term widget to represent mini-applications that exist on the desktop.  DesktopX was arguably the first program to actually put mini-applications on the desktop but it referred to them as objects.  Only in DesktopX 2, which came out in 2003, did DesktopX add "widgets" (which differ from objects in that they run in their own memory space -- they're .EXE's whereas objects are .dxpacks that run within the DesktopX environment).

Allegedly, when Steve Jobs was confronted about this, he wrote: "Excuse me, but Mac OS 9 had desktop Widgets long before Konfabulator did. Apple was the first to use the term Widgets as well. We never complained when the Konfabulator guys "ripped off Apple" and I think its a bit unfair for them to be claiming we ripped them off now. "(see full thread here).  Sorry but what a load of crap.

MacOS 9 had nothing like Konfabulator in there and if it used the term "widget" it certainly didn't use them in any sense that Dashboard/Konfabulator/DesktopX use the term.  This is precisely one of the reasons why I have no interest in writing code for that platform. For all the grief Microsoft gets for ripping off their developers (and yes, Microsoft is guilty of this too but it seems much more friendly to ISVs overall) it's amazing that more attention isn't paid to Apple's total disregard of its ISVs. Konfabulator isn't the first victim. What about Sherlock? A blatant copy off of Watson IMO.

There does, however, seem to be a debate on who can make the great "innovation" claim here.  Arlo Rose claims in his journal that Konfabulator was the first to make it possible for end users to easily create mini-applications on their desktop.  That's not quite untrue. There were calculators, mail checkers, CPU meters, calendars, etc. for DesktopX long before Konfabulator came out -- all made by end users without having to do anywhere near as much techie-ability as Konfabulator requires. And before DesktopX there was Litestep which required being a techie but still allowed users to create desktop modules.  But what Konfabulator did do was raise the bar on quality.  Stardock made DesktopX and just put it out there and waited for its skinning community to do neat things with it. That was a mistake because what mostly got made for DesktopX was eye candy stuff.

By contrast, Konfabulator came out from the start with a series of highly polished, useful, mini-applications. Konfabulator had laser-beamed precisely what it was about.  Meanwhile, Stardock treated DesktopX as this big technology environment that could do tons of things but provided few useful examples. The appointment widget you see here is an example of the type of widget Konfabulator came with.

Where Konfabulator had a finely tuned goal, DesktopX meandered with being able to build desktops AND objects. It was trying to be all things to all people and run on Windows 95, 98, and NT 4.0 to boot.

Click to Enlarge

Early DesktopX themes looked more like toys (here's one from early 2000, is it trying to be a shell replacement?). But as the mail checker screenshot shows, DesktopX also allowed for useful "objects" to be made that required no programming on the part of the object maker.

As hardware evolved and more users moved to Windows 2000 and later Windows XP, DesktopX continued to evolve.

None of this takes anything away from Konfabulator mind you. Konfabulator is a great program on the Mac and it really is very innovative.  But it wasn't the first at delivering user-created mini-apps to the desktop, DesktopX precedes it and it's likely that something else out there precedes DesktopX. What I'm getting at is that this concept isn't new, or revolutionary. What we have seen is the evolution of a concept that is quite old.

For DesktopX isn't without its own inspirations.  The whole DesktopX concept was inspired by IBM's OpenDoc desktop initiative that never got off the ground.  In 1996, IBM invited me to Austin Texas to demonstrate what would have been OS/2 Warp 5 (Warp 4 was in beta at this point and they were planning the true follow-up to it for 1998 which eventually got canned).  This would be OS/2 Warp 5 was to have a full OpenDoc based desktop in which end users, using REXX for their scripting language would be able to make use of OpenDoc parts and put them together easily to put mini-applications on the desktop.  The example I was shown included a printer that showed itself printing (animated) and if it ran out of ink would visually show you. The printer wasn't icon size but rather could be any size you wanted it to be. Other examples were clocks, stock tickers, calculators, and schedulers. What IBM wanted to do was take icons to "the next level" by blurring the line between icons and applications.  Keep in mind, this is 1996, 3 years before DesktopX's first betas would show up and long before Konfabulator would see the light of day.  IBM had the idea, they just weren't able to get it together into a commercial product.  DesktopX did.

But it took Konfabulator to really do it right -- in terms of polish, presentation, and focus. When Stardock was developing DesktopX 2, much more attention was put on creating sample objects that would show off what DesktopX could do. There was, admitted, considerable frustration that Konfabulator was getting a great deal of press for doing things DesktopX had been doing for years (though with uglier looking objects). Fully animated MP3 players were made by artists from the very beginning for instance but often felt kludgy and unpolished. But with DesktopX 2, Stardock would document things better. It would put out objects that would show what DesktopX could do. And it would add its own form of widget support where now users could export their objects as .EXEs that would run on your computer as any other program as long as DesktopX was installed somewhere.


Examples of DesktopX widgets created by Stardock. Konfabulator proves that better marketing trumps being first.

Getting back to the point, innovation rarely belongs to a single source. We are all inspired from something. Innovation often involves taking a concept and moving it to the next level.  DesktopX is a very innovative product.  Konfabulator is a very innovative product.  Dashboard, however, is not. It is, from what I can see, a step back from Konfabulator but at the same time does enough that it'll really take the wind out of Konfabulator's sales (pun intended in hindsight). What galls me is how aggressively Apple protects even the most suspect of "innovations". 

Given Apple's Dashboard, it'll be hard to take any future Apple complaints that someone "stole" their idea seriously.  Because at the end of the day, Apple is just like most other large software companies, they'll borrow, beg, and steal wherever they can to make their products better. Which isn't a bad thing unless you're touting yourself as being uniquely innovative.

Related Articles: Konfabulator vs. DesktopX

Update 9/2005: Konfabulator gets saved from the jaws of doom by Yahoo who then discovers a month later that Microsoft is going to include support for "gadgets" in the next version of Windows. Oh what a tangled web.

Comments (Page 4)
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