Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Test Drive: Google Homepage API Boosts Content "Widgets" War

What's a "widget"? It's a digital module of computer program code and content that acts like an independent object within a given set of technologies. When the technologies of choice for widgets are based on the popular open standards for HTML, XML and JavaScript then it becomes easy to build popular widgets that can deliver sophisticated content services in standard Web browser environments without a lot of other technology getting in the way. This pretty much describes the widgets available through the new Google Homepage API, a new toolkit that allows anyone to develop interactive content that can be embedded on a user's personalized Google homepage. Yahoo also has a JavaScript-based Widget application, but unlike Google's it is a kit that allows very slickly designed graphic tools to be integrated into a desktop via a software download: they're not browser-based and therefore separate from a user's MyYahoo home page.

While Yahoo gets the nod in terms of the visual sophistication of their tools and the breadth of widgets already built, Google is much closer in its browser-based approach to bringing useful content-serving applications into the environment in which most people consume content. This makes it far more likely that the Google approach will yield valuable content-oriented widgets. The widgets available through the Google Homepage API also benefit from the easy-to-use Google Homepage itself, in which headlines and other sources can be rearranged easily on the page with drag-and-drop clicks of a mouse. By comparison the MyYahoo home page requires more awkward rearrangement of page elements.

This all adds up to a very prominent message to content producers that the aggregation of content is beginning to take on new dynamics via the development of widgets. Instead of trying to bring users to portals of a publisher's design publishers need to recognize that more and more content is being consumed in other portal environments, including the intranet portals of businesses and institutions. Via tools such as Google's widgets it becomes possible to maintain a personalized relationship with a user via a portal-embedded content delivery tool, enabling both information and technology services to be combined easily in an environment that users are drawn to on a regular basis.

Unlike widgets developed for enterprise portals, though, the Google API opens up the possibility of widgets that do not require any institutional infrastructure: widgets can begin to have a life of their own, becoming digital content objects in and of themselves. There will be the usual little tools, toys and mashups developed for the Google Homepage API, but content providers would do themselves a favor by looking at this environment carefully and considering how they can create highly functional digital outposts on a major portal that can integrate in with a user's other favorite content and work tools. At the same time portal software developers would do themselves a favor by considering how easily imported widgets can allow users to assemble content-enabled digital objects in any environment a user desires. These are simple beginnings for online widgets, but harbingers of a major trend in content development.
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