Bizz Word Primer: Widgets Are Not Apps


MP Guru

On NPR’s On Point program recently, there was a wide-ranging discussion of business jargon (“bizz words”) — how these terms arise, when they can be helpful, when they obscure meaning, when they come to mean everything and therefore nothing and also when they signal a real change in the culture.

One bizz word was cited for imbuing real meaning in a previously silly word: widgets. These are little programs that run on your Mac dashboard, your iGoogle portal or your Facebook homepage, and are often developed by an army of independent programmers.

The interviewee on NPR mentioned the popular iPhone Apps Store as a home to widgets such as games, navigators and news feeds. Which begs a question I’ve been puzzled by: just what is the difference between a widget and an app?

I got to the bottom of this by talking to Joshua Keay, founder of Magnetism Studios, who has created some very successful widgets for the Mac dashboard and apps for the iPhone Apps Store, including Tile Sudoku, CityTransit and FileMagnet.

So is an app just a renamed widget? A bit of clever branding from the marketing geniuses in Cupertino?

No. According to Keay, there is a technical difference, although it’s mainly seen on the programmer’s side. A widget is web based, running on Javascript and XML, languages of the Web that are read by browsers. An app is compiled code residing on your device written in a programming language that is read by operating systems — like the Objective-C language (for Apple products) or Java (for Google’s Android phone project).

Many of these apps that Magnetism and others have designed add clear enough value that you could wonder why Apple didn’t do it themselves. Didn’t they know half the world would want Sudoku on their iPhone? Perhaps. But by opening their platform up with a software developer kit (SDK), Apple was able to embrace the “jailbreaking” hackers who had threatened to undermine the first generation iPhone, and stimulate a much broader range of features than they could develop themselves. The challenge, though, may be filtering through all this choice.

“When Apple reached 2,000 dashboard widgets, suddenly there was a big quality-versus-quantity issue — there were a lot of widgets that were only half-baked and finding the good stuff was surprisingly difficult,” says Keay. The iPhone Apps Store already has over 1,400 offerings less than a month after it opened. As open platforms like Facebook, Android and the iPhone lead to vast numbers of apps and widgets, users may need new tools to filter through the noise and customize the right set for them. Social bookmarking or search might be of help. But companies like Netflix have found that building really good recommendation engines can be very tricky.