Why Widgets Is The Wrong Word For What We're Doing

I am speaking at WidgetWeb today. They asked me to talk about widgets as startups, but I am not going to talk about that. I am going to talk about the end of widgets as we know them, starting with the word itself.

I got excited about web widgets in 2005 and spent a lot of 2006 and early 2007 writing about them, playing with them, and filling this blog’s sidebars with them.

WIkipedia says that "In computing, the term has become frequently used to refer to objects on a computer screen the user interacts with

In another entry, Wikipedia goes further:

A web widget is a portable chunk of code that can be installed and executed within any separate HTML-based web page by an end user without requiring additional compilation. They are derived from the idea of code reuse.
Other terms used to describe web widgets include: gadget, badge,
module, capsule, snippet, mini and flake. Web widgets often but not
always use DHTML, JavaScript, or Adobe Flash.

Widgets have made a great contribution to the web in the past four years. They have allowed us to mashup our web pages and create experiences that express dozens of web services on a single page. This blog’s front page expresses at least fourteen web services at this point in time. It was a lot more before I went on my recent housecleaning spree.

And yet, at least in my experience, widgets suck. That was the top search term on this blog for most of last year. And everytime I clean up my act, I get a huge number of readers thanking me. The widgets (and the javascript I put on this blog) slow down the page load times considerably. And they are distracting to many of the readers. I imagine if I took a poll, about 2/3 of my readers would vote for  widgetless sidebars.

So if widgets suck, then how do we continue to express all of the web services on the pages we create? I think we need to move to a model where the content is all in the same flow. My tumblog is a good example of this. Here’s a screenshot of fredwilson.vc for those of you who have never visited.


That page shows an mp3 I posted this morning (the same one that is on the upper right of this blog), a twitter post from dick costolo that I liked, and a wallstrip interview with Daniel Ha, co-founder of disqus.

I didn’t want to put a larger picture on this page, but if you visit fredwilson.vc, you’ll find a couple of posts from this blog, my last.fm weekly top listens, and a few more twitters on the front page. It’s all in a single column, and flows from web service to web service in a "river of content".

That’s where we need to get to. Putting all of this stuff in widgets all over the page is ugly, distracting, slows page loads, and creates a bunch of other problems which we’ve all experienced.

That’s why I believe we need to move beyond widgets to a more integrated model of mashing up web services. That’s going to be my message this morning at Widget Web. If you want to debate it and are in NYC, come to the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott. I go on at 9:15am.

UPDATE: Here’s the powerpoint deck I used at Widget Web today. Great discussion afterwards. The two big areas I left out of my presentation were Facebook apps (and all social apps) and RSS.  If I were to give this presentation again, I’d add some thoughts on both of those.

#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. chasgrundy

    It sounds like you’re suggesting that it’s better to combine your content into a single stream – a la Tumblr – rather than have disparate sources like a blog, Twitter, and Flickr accounts. This approach makes sense for your users who know you on a personal level (or are mega fans) and want to consume anything you publish… but for users that simply want to read your VC articles it simply increases the off-topic content through which we need to sift.I recently split my blog into two blogs because I found myself writing 50/50 on two drastically different topics – and most of my old visitors didn’t care about the new topic. For this reason, I wouldn’t pollute my site’s content with my last.fm feed or anything else that wasn’t related to the one thing I’m trying to do well.The problem isn’t the widgets – it’s the introduction of noise into your otherwise strong signal.

    1. fredwilson

      That’s partially why I now have two blogs; avc and fredwilson.vc

    2. Nate

      Agree with “noise” being the problem. You just have to be choosy. If I was redesigning your blog here’s what I would do:Kill these widgets: “Recent visitors”, “Recent Posts”, “Eco Safe” (replace it with a print stylesheet), and “My social networks”.Consolidate “Categories” and “Date Archives” into a single archives page.Consolidate RSS options.A nice “about” page to tell your story and to point to your social networks, music taste, ventures, etc.Limit Twitterstream to last 3 tweets.Consolidate “Stats”: I’d just show Feedburner subs (that’s the most impressive) and have a separate page for the rest.Find less noisy widgets for your music and Flickr streams.Finally, good copy conquers all, so even with noisy sidebars your signal wins.

      1. fredwilson

        You are hired! How much is all this going to cost me?

        1. Nate

          My hourly rate for super successful VCs is quite reasonable :-)You can email me at [email protected].

      2. tweetip

        nice Nathan 🙂 really really nice

  2. Bill Davenport

    I agree with your post and with the comment. In general I read 95% of a vc through Google Reader, so I never see the widgets. My focus in reader is what’s new. So in my general experience widgets that aren’t in the feed aren’t relevant. When I do go to a vc it’s when a posting catches my eye and I want to look at the comments and again then I ignore the widgets. Where I generally do pay attention is when the content / widget gets embedded in the rss feed and when they are part of the signal and relevant to the posting/site as chasgrundy notes. As a side note being able to view/make comments within Reader would be a nice feature.

  3. Seth Lieberman

    The problem is all integration– given the myriad of large publishing platforms “widgets” are the best current way to create a product that will work with most of those platforms at a reasonable cost. With unlimited resources creating products that are faster and work better is fine, but think of the integration work for each platform etc…it’s huge. True javascript, flash etc can be slow and make your site look like a ransom note (though that sound be customizable easily) but there is little other option to quickly and afford ably develop portable, integrate technology right now.

  4. khylek

    It’s not that widgets suck or widgets are great. it’s that they’re not important. As you touch on, it’s the integration (i.e. the conversation *Loren Feldman’s opinion aside*) that’s important. Widgets can be good.A widget, technically speaking, can act like you want it to – mashing things up. It’s just that they’re not actually doing it right now. Maybe that’s because of branding, I don’t know. But the integration is key in the end.

    1. fredwilson

      Who is loren feldman?

      1. Rex Hammock

        That’s funny, Fred. Keep it up and you’ll get your own puppet.

  5. BillSeitz

    Note that your blog has 2 very different kinds of widgets:1. relatively static/list/feature widgets (print this page, list of Etsy items, MyBlogLog)2. stream widgets: twitter posts, latest comments across postsThe latter can often be handled as RSS. Though even there, there’s enough variation in requirements that it would be tricky for every integrator to render the contents in a rich/attractive way.

  6. awilensky

    Why do some mega sites like Ars load so quickly and some seem to stall – is it the widgets, the flash, the JavaScript? It seems that the services that have integrated the native installation of many types of blog bling (like Typepad), have no problem rendering these pages quickly, whereas some self-hosted MT and WP blogs take forever to load when so adorned.Even TechCrunch, which I used to take note of as a fast loading site, is now so bogged down with crap. Part of this is always the client processing capacity, but most of my machines are fairly new.

  7. RacerRick

    The problem is the Javascript, not widgets.If we move to web services and APIs, we lose that copy/paste simplicity of widgets (for the most part).Widgets should be server-side and include Div tags. They load fast and can adhere to the CSS.

    1. NICCAI

      This is the root of the problem. It isn’t the size of widgets, but really the number of inline script tags and the resultant domain look-ups that is killing performance and usability. I’ve been toying with the idea of building some sort of a mashery for widgets, but the simplicity for the end user might be a blocking issue. Ultimately, I think the browser domain policy is crippling.

  8. Brian Litvack

    It seems like people sometimes use widgets as a form of self-expression. They want to post the widget on their turf (myspace page, facebook profile, blog, etc.) because it looks cool or helps represent them. In addition, most publishers create widgets as a promotional or marketing tool to help drive traffic back to their destinations. Both these reasons don’t do much to benefit the reader.As you often say, this internet stuff is still so new. Maybe as widgets mature they’ll grow out of that dumb nick name, but more importantly, people, publishers and widget companies will learn to make widgets that have more value to readers.Another idea is that perhaps standard banner ads become widgets allowing advertisers to push content through that real estate instead of a lame marketing message.

  9. josef

    Fred -Thanks for this insight. I would’ve come down, but they wanted a grand for the entry fee.

  10. Rex Hammock

    As someone who has called you the King of Bling in the past (or maybe I just think I did), I appreciate your house-cleaning. Also, will someone explain to me how the words “widget” (which, I thought were those things that went on “start pages” like Google/ig) and “badge” (which I thought were those things that are now being referred to as widgets) have now sorta consolidated into one word, “widget,” that means any box that contains syndicated content of any sort. In other words, when did the word “badge” die?

  11. jeremystein

    is it an integrated model on the web or on my desktop?6mo ago i had a ton of widgets on my blog– and i spent a lot of time there. i had the content i liked (because it was my bookmarks, writings, etc), and a feed of all of the services i used. it was like netvibes on steroids.i slowly started removing everything when i became a heavy adobe air user. everything i needed was on my desktop, and i didnt have to keep going back to my blog.apps like twhirl are going to be great businesses.but what type of integration? social? maybe. the widgets that we have today are about me, not you. your readers come here for content. theyre not as interested in your last.fm playlist, bookmarks, etc. those who are already follow you there.

  12. qwang

    By mashup, do you mean just sticking a bunch of widgets together on a page? Or some kind of interplay between widgets?As far as I know, widgets today are self-contained little blackboxes, which is part of the charm and what makes them so redistributable. Is there any use in having widgets actually expose APIs and talk to each other?

    1. fredwilson

      I did not mean widget interaction. Just the ability to have many web services on a single page

  13. jer979

    Following up on Dave Slusher’s post yesterday to get off Twitter, you’ve motivated to go back and give Tumblr a try (again). Thing is, I’ve got one RSS into it; FriendFeed.Just posted on it: http://www.jer979.com/ignit…I hear the issue of “off-topic” stuff for people who don’t know you personally, but if the person is really the channel now, then its akin to saying, “I really like watching Discovery channel programming,” but I don’t watch all of their shows all the time. As long as people can easily find the stuff they want and consume it when/where and the signal/noise ratio is high, I think (for now, at least), I’m good.Plus, there’s the possibility that we will find new ways to connect if you are a business associate who sees the music I am listening on Pandora or the movie I just added to my Netflix queue.Or, a friend might see a comment via Disqus (working on integrating to my blog, but having a bit of a challenge) that I made on another blog and you’ll get introduced to a whole new world (Aladdin music!)Thanks for the push, as usual!

  14. jackson

    The question I have is; how many different platforms does one need to share one’s personal life with strangers?

    1. fredwilson

      As many as possible :)But on a more serious note, some services are best for photos (flickr), some are best for music (last.fm), some are best fot links (delicious), some are best for microblogging (twitter)That’s why this issue has developedFred

      1. mrshl

        This is why I like FriendFeed. I lean heavily on one widget. It’s the only one I have on my blog. And it’s one of my favorite few apps on Facebook. There’s no need for a bunch of crap on your blog when one widget / service can elegantly communicate your “lifestream.” All that FriendFeed is the new Google crap? Meh, it’s just that…crap. I’ve had a hard time getting people to join up. It’s simply not gaining traction like Twitter did.But it’s the perfect blog widget, because it brings together all those activities in one place. And it brings them to my blog, which is where I want it to be.

        1. fredwilson

          FF is doing better than thatIt’s not twitter 2.0 thoughHopefully that will be twitter 2.0 🙂

  15. Jason Preston

    What’s happening on your tumblog is what I like to call “lifestreaming,” although I’m sure other people use a different word for the same thing. I would like to see more lifestreaming functionality built in to WordPress, which is the engine I use for my own site.But I think that it’s not the only way we are heading, nor is it the only solution to the “widget problem.” I think the problem with widgets in the sidebars is generally twofold: 1) they can be ugly and 2) they can get in the way of seeing the content you want to see.I think tab-based solutions and other layout solutions will start to show up for this. You mentioned Facebook – they have had a “widget” problem from all the apps on their platform. Pretty soon they’re launching a new, tabbed profile layout that gives the user some more control over how they display their apps.So while I think that “lifestreaming” widget content is one way to go about it, I also think that bringing more advanced layout and design to blogs is a promising route (think problogger.net).

    1. fredwilson

      Its funny. My presentation today was like a blog post. I left a lot of time for Q&A and it was the best part. When we talked about facebook I pointed to the new tabbed design as a recognition by FB that ‘widgets’ are not the answerIt will be interesting to see what tabs bring in terms of user experience and engagment with third party services

  16. Vishy

    @Rex HammockAs I understand it, badges have limited interactivity and are pretty much the consumer Web incarnation of portlets from crufty enterprise portals of old. Widgets, otoh, are vehicles for syndicated interactivity.To everyone:I totally agree with Fred’s larger point of moving beyond just widgets. I think the awful performance of widget-laden sites is in part due to crappy Javascript engines in browsers and that’s gonna take a while to get fixed, if at all. IBM’s donation to the Dojo toolkit of a component called SMash (see http://www.infoworld.com/ar… ) puts mashable stuff in iframes for security reasons. A good side-effect of this though will be performance as well: iframes are rendered independently in most browsers.

  17. Jeremiah Jamison

    Fred–I read this with interest and enjoyed it. As someone with an orientation towards product and marketing, I’ve long thought the name Widget was weak. Widgets are things from Econ-101–could be anything and by extension nothing. So one basic element of movement in this discussion is whether the name “Widget” makes sense at all.More broadly tho, the problem as I see it is not one of technology but one of design. Widgets (as well as other technologies from RoR to wordpress to even PopFly) are and will continue to make it easier and easier for anyone to harness a greater potential from the web in what they express on their own and others’ web sites. The ease of use and the power of these will only increase over time.The challenge is how you keep what should be pretty straight-forward web content site, e.g., a blog, from looking like some tricked out race-car with sponsorships, data and junk all over the place. The data will continue to grow, the tools to expose them also will continue to get more powerful. Now the challenge will basically be one of design, IMHO, technical solutions will not have the heavy lifting here.

  18. davemc500hats

    hey fred: speaking of widgets, instead of linking to your presentation on slideshare, why don’t you use the EMBED code so it can be displayed here?(the embed code is displayed on the upper right hand area of the slideshare page)

    1. fredwilson

      Good pointShould have done thatEmbeds rock

  19. joshs

    The slideshare link isn’t working for me. I got a few errors generated by the site, then it was really slow to load and now I only get “500 Internal Server Error”.

  20. josh guttman

    wow, a discussion that you put together hours before presenting it to 25 people at the brooklyn marriot becomes a leading techmeme post. that’s efficiency at its best!!

    1. fredwilson

      It wasn’t as good as it could have beenIt was missing a discussion of Facebook and RSS

  21. pedalpete

    I kinda agree with Fred on this one, but the way I see it, most widgets are focused solely on the blog writer, and not any kind of mash-up of the intersection of where the blog writer and blog reader intersect.Today I created a quick widget for my site hearWhere which shows concerts anywhere in the world. Rather than take the address of the blog-writer for the location, I use the address for the blog reader. Unfortunately, I don’t yet have enough data to create the kind of intersection point of what you should go see in your area because you like Fred’s blog. Hopefully in the future, but for now I’m taking a wait and see approach. If people like the widget, I’ll go for it, if not, it can die out with the only hint of it’s existence being this comment post 😉

  22. lawrence coburn

    I like consuming content in a river format, but I’m not sure we’re going to see the end of the sidebar any time soon. And I also think that there are some widgets that wouldn’t make as much sense as their own post in flow – like MyBlogLog (which I agree might be the most interesting widget ever). Maybe a less radical outcome would be to eliminate some of the suckiness of sidebar widgets (maybe cloud computing stuff will help with the performance issues) as opposed to throwing out the whole sidebar.

  23. joshlarson

    I interviewed NewsGator Widgets’ Jeff Nolan for his take on your comments — from another perspective. You can see that discussion here:http://blogs.newsgator.com/

    1. fredwilson

      I read the interviewGood addition to the discussion

  24. joshlarson

    @fredwilson I’m glad you enjoyed hearing his perspective from a somewhat different angle. Just so you know, the second part of the discussion is now up, too: http://blogs.newsgator.com/

    1. cfrerebeau

      What about one widget to rules them all.- a service could offer you to registered and configured widget for your blog- user could edit the widget they want to see- the service could used open id to simplify the use authenticationlot of other cool stuffJust let the user pick what they want.

  25. Lucas

    comparing YMP approach

  26. Arsv.org