by Leslie Ellis // February 02 2009
Widgets, widgets, everywhere the widgets.
If last month’s Consumer Electronics Show is any predictor, the world of widgets is aimed squarely at the television set. Intel Corp. and Yahoo! led the pack at CES last month, displaying their widget work on HDTV sets made by LG Electronics and Samsung.
What’s a widget? When I was in college, “widgets” lived in economics. A “widget” was a generic word meaning anything a factory makes.” Widgets helped economists to calculate percentage gains or losses in production.
Following an economics definition dating back to 1931, the Oxford English Dictionary describes a widget this way: “A visual symbol on a computer screen; the software and data involved when the operations represented by such a device are invoked.” [That citation came from 2003.]
Widgets are already big in the computing and mobile worlds. Apple runs a “widget warehouse,” with hundreds of applications grouped by category. There’s a top 50 list, as well as “staff picks” and “most popular.” Widgets exist to translate text into other languages, to read product bar codes and find cheaper prices at nearby stores, even to create your dream aquarium. [Search for “fishdom.”]
In that sense, then, Mac and iPhone people already know widgets.
At CES, the work done by Yahoo! and Intel showed up as a “TV widget bar,” on the lower third of the TV screen, and populated with graphical icons. eBay was on it, as was Netflix, and CBS Entertainment. Also the standard interactive TV fare: Weather, finance, news, sports.
What’s still not exactly clear is what it takes for a developer to get a widget onto an LG, Samsung or other HDTV screen. [More TV manufacturers are expected to join the widget cosmos.] At CES, widget people from Yahoo! and Intel said they don’t want to be in charge of testing or certifying widgets. They mentioned a “working group” to handle that body of work.
Here’s why this matters, relative to iPhones and Macs and devices stuffed with enviable amounts of processing power, graphics flexibility, and memory: Margins. If the years of work between cable and consumer electronics on “two way plug and play” proved anything, it’s that asking a CE manufacturer to arbitrarily add more muscle, in order to do more in software, is asking for the moon.
Here’s one view of how the TV Widget certification process could go: Developer Jane builds a widget. [One of the other discussions that always swirl around widgets is the easy-to-use, open-standard software development kits available to build applications.]
Let’s say it’s a widget that turns the remote control into a homing device for every small thing in your electronic garden. Click on the widget; hear audible clues from your blackberry, phone, memory stick, iPod, and digital camera. [You need this too, right?]
Developer Jane submits her widget to Yahoo/Intel working groups’ for test. That likely costs her some cash. Let’s say that gets the go. From there, Developer Jane probably treks to LG, or Samsung, to get blessed for inclusion on their next batch of HDTV sets. That probably costs her some cash, too.
If Jane wants to get her remote homing widget into anybody else’s HDTV sets? Lather, rinse, repeat.
What happens when she adds more small objects to the list of things the remote can detect, via the widget? How does that code update get to LG’s and Samsung’s widget sets?
Anyone familiar with the 30+ year tale of interactive television has seen this movie before. What’s thick today is thin tomorrow, in terms of end-device capabilities.
Interestingly, all of the “TV widgets” demos at CES included a toggle feature — between the TV Widget side of the house, and the tru2way side of the house. Politically, this is proof that cable operators aren’t denying consumer electronics manufacturers a broadband spigot into the side of the TV.
Tactically, it means that the widget world could have a future in digital set-top boxes — especially for the 50% of U.S. households who already purchased an HDTV, and aren’t planning on buying another one any time soon.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.