Tapas and mobile widgets

At the beginining of March I went to check out a gastropub called William IV not too far away from my neighbourhood. It’s located on the Harrow Road in NW10, technically in Kensal Green but a stone’s throw from the top end of Ladbroke Grove. London bus Route 18 (a bendy one) goes right past it, or if you drive you can park in the nearby Sainsbury’s car park. The food in this pub is implausibly Tapas, and given that I like to think I know my Spanish-style food well, I was pleasantly surprised; the food was ace! It’s a bit pricey for my liking, but if you go on weekday lunch-times (or anytime on Mondays and Tuesdays) you can take advantage of a 3 for 2 offer which makes it more appropriate value. 5 or 6 dishes are more than enough for two at this place IMHO; they come as they come, and I would have to say that if you like your tapas you will definitely like this place! Click on the “click here” below for a couple of images of our visit. The accompanying music is When Tomorrow Comes by Eurythmics (Lennox/Stewart/Seymour) from 1986. I like this song because it brings back fond memories of when life used to be a lot simpler.

Those who are familiar with the style of tapas will appreciate that this kind of eating is a process of exploration and discovery of more-or-less-single-bite morsels of simple, but tastily, prepared bits of meat, fish and veg.

Which brings me nicely along to the subject of “widgets”. Or mobile widgets in particular. Where to start? This could get extremely technical, but I’ll try to maintain some sanity by keping it as simple as poss.

At the core of it all “widgets” are simply computer programs that run on your computer. A bit like your word processor or spreadsheet or whatever you fire up on your computer or laptop. But unlike your favourite word processor or spreadsheet program, widgets are smaller, more single-purposed programs. In other words, if you liken your word processor to a classic main meal consisting of several ingredients combined together to produce a complex combination of flavours in perhaps sufficient quantities to leave your stomach bloated when you finish, then a widget will be like a tiny little appetiser with a simpler, less-complicated flavour which leaves you wanting more. A bit like tapas I suppose.

So, unlike your word processor, which will allow you to typeset a complete book if you want it to, complete with diagramming tools, equation editors, word counts, indexing and grammatical checking tools, a widget will typically do something a lot simpler and more focussed. Like what for example? Er …. like display a little icon that gives you a rough indication of the 3-day weather forecast for your locality for example. Crucially, this example alludes to another feature of widgets commonly accepted in conventional wisdoms: they occupy just a little space on the “desktop” of your computer screen; and are always there to be able to be “glanced” at whenever you wish. Or else they can magically appear on your desktop at the stroke of a button.

In a particular stretch of the Eurythmics slong that’s playing in the background you will hear Annie Lennox singing the following:

Every star was shining brightly, just like a million years before. And we were feeling very small, underneath the universe.

And this nicely (albeit somewhat tenuously) illustrates another aspect of widgets that defines them: there are loads of them “out there”. A universe of small useful little widgets. A universe within which you can go round collecting widgets which you can instantly download to your computer’s desktop to provide you something small, simple and useful to look at from time to time. In order to be useful, widgets probably have to be connected. Connected to the Internet for example. So that you could have a news-ticker widget, a stock quote widget or an Manchester United football team live match-score widget. The possibilities are limitless, such is the magic of being connected to the Internet.

By now you might be excused for wondering what’s new about this widget concept, I mean we already have access to all this wonderful connected stuff through our Internet browsers surely? And we’ve had for quite some time too, no? The answer is yes and yes, but what’s new about widgets is that they run outside your browser. The idea is that this makes them even more convenient because just like you’ve found collecting browser bookmarks and URLs for the last 10 years incredibly useful, widgets are even more useful because you don’t even need to fire up your browser to get at useful snippets of stuff. They’s always just there, on your screen, quietly updating themselves whenever they need updating. You just get on with what you normally do on your computer, and then glance occasionally at your collection of widgets that you placed strategically around your screen earlier.

You could also argue that some “widgets” are also old hat and that you already have them – e.g. the BBC News ticker for example. Well yes, but the BBC News Ticker (which has been around for donkey’s years) was created by the technical folks at the BBC who probably used complicated professional software development practises that go with creating programs for computers. Like using a complex programming language like C++ or Java etc. and managing the creation of the software in the traditional manner of software projects: feasibility, design, development, testing etc. all of which costs a lot of time and money and access to data and systems that only the staff at the BBC have access to – and therefore out of reach of the casual software developer who probably doesn’t do that sort of thing for a living. And this characterises the final aspect of widgets that sets them apart from other small computer programs: they are crafted in the language of the web; i.e. HTML, Javascript, Flash etc. And it’s because of this (being crafted in the language of the web) that there will be millions of them; a universe of widgets.

Because someone, somewhere out there, will have created a widget that does the one thing that they particularly like, and you might like it too.

Those of you familiar with The Long Tail* (yawn) will get this aspect of widgets. Well that’s the theory anyway.

So, to summarise widgets: they’re:

Always on your screen
Connected to the Internet
Created in the language of the web
In plentiful supply, new ones are being created all the time

And so, whilst the public at large are still to get used to the idea of widgets making their lives simpler on their desktop computers, the conveyor belt of hype is already churning out the concept of “mobile widgets”. Yep, today you can get widgets on your computer, tomorrow you’ll get widgets for your mobile phone. When tomorrow comes you’ll be able to collect widgets (from a universe of widgets out there) for your mobile phone, using your mobile phone.

And the theory goes that because widgets are small, single-purpose morsels of goodness which don’t take up much room on a screen, they’re much better suited for mobile phones because for anything to work well on a mobile phone it has to be small (there’s isn’t much space on a mobile phone screen), simple to use (like with one thumb and a pair of eyes) and take up zero brain cycles (because using a mobile phone has to be zero-effort). Some people go so far to say because of this mobile phones will actually drive the explosion of the widgetosphere.

Warning: technical bit: The theory says that where mobile web and WAP supposedly failed, mobile widgets will succeed, and everyone will love ’em. I am quietly optimistic. Actually, I’m quite hopeful. But not because there’s anything technically revolutionally or problem-solving about widgets per se, but because the very fact that this stuff is closer in ideological terms to the “Internet way”, the greater the probability of there arising a long term fix to the real problems that have plagued the adoption of Internet applications on mobile over the years, namely a combination of the interdependencies of: bad usability, bad distribution economics and bad platform fragmentation. The bigger the developer community you expose these challenges to (or the more of Google’s PhD-qualified staff that get on the case), the more likely solutions will be found. There’s no guarantee of success, just a higher probability of succeeding.

I hope this explanation was useful and/or entertaining. And even if it wasn’t I hope you enjoyed the pictures and the music. And for those of you who live in London and like Tapas, I hope you might have added the William IV pub to your “must-try” list.

(This article was created as a submission to next week’s Carnival of the Mobilists, a weekly roundup of the best articles about all things mobile. Each week the “Carnival” is hosted by different bloggers writing about the industry. This week’s Carnival [number 75] is hosted at Vision Mobile. Next week’s Carnival [number 76] is hosted at MTV’s Greg Clayman’s Twofones blog.)


* “The Long Tail” is basically another way of saying that just a handful of really popular websites are used by masses of people frequently (e.g. Google, BBC, Youtube, Myspace), , but the vast majority of the websites out there are those that are visited infrequently, or have only a handful of users. It’s that vast majority that are “The Long Tail”. I particularly like the way that an Amazon employee was said to have described it: “We sold more books today that didn’t sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday.

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