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Women in Tech

Tiger's Dashboard Brings Widgets to New Dimension

By John P. Mello Jr. MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Apr 27, 2005 5:00 AM PT

"Dashboards" and "Widgets" aren't anything new to desktop computers, but with the release this Friday of version 10.4 of the Mac OS X operating system, also known as Tiger, Apple Computer has blown the dust from the concepts and reintroduced them in a flashy form.

Tiger's Dashboard Brings Widgets to New Dimension

Dashboards on a computer desktop are applications designed to give users quick access to other applications on their computer. Widgets are usually small, single-function programs -- a clock, for instance, or a calculator -- that can be added to a dashboard.

In the Windows world, dashboards became so popular that Microsoft decided to incorporate the concept into its operating system as the task bar and task tray. With Tiger, though, Apple is taking dashboards and widgets to a new dimension.

Development for the People

Dori Smith, author of Dashboard Widgets for Mac OS X Tiger, to be published in August by Peachpit Press, compared Tiger's Dashboard to another Apple innovation: Hypercard. "What Apple is saying is you don't have to be a programmer in order to do this one little cool thing that you wish stuff did," she told MacNewsWorld.

Dashboard has also been compared to the desktop accessories feature of the old Mac Classic OS -- an analogy discounted by widget developer Lennart "Lensco" Schoors. Dashboard is faster, very customizable, very accessible to beginning developers and looks a lot better, he told MacNewsWorld via e-mail.

Tiger's Dashboard can be activated with the press of a single function key. When activated, the service appears as a transparent layer over the desktop. That display technique is reminiscent of Expose, which was introduced by Apple in Tiger's predecessor, Panther.

Expose allows users, with a single key press, to display scaled down views of all open windows in a transparent layer over the desktop.

Resource Hog?

Any number of widgets can be displayed on the Dashboard, although moderation might be in order. "If you pull in a lot of them, they can be a memory hog," Smith said. "If you load in 20 widgets to always be running, some of them are going to be better than others at their memory usage."

"Basically, they don't consume any resources if they're hidden," Schoors added, "unless they aren't properly coded and still run in the background when hidden."

"When Dashboard is active," he continued, "I think [it would take] loads of them simultaneously in order to get your system messed up. Bandwidth-heavy widgets might clog your network connection, though."

As Simple as HTML

For users who have created Web pages, creating most widgets should be easy, since all it takes is knowledge of HTML, CSS and JavaScript. More sophisticated widgets require a familiarity with the Cocoa programming environment. "But you can do a lot without Cocoa," Smith noted.

"There's going to be a lot of developers who never thought of themselves as developers developing widgets," she added.

At its Web site, Apple said it expects widgets to fall into three categories:

  • Accessory Widgets. These are self-contained. Clocks, timers, calculators, and note-takers fall into this category.
  • Application Widgets. These are associated with a full-fledged application. This kind of widget enhances the application by providing a less complicated and often read-only interface. Two widgets included with the Tiger release -- iTunes Controller and Address Book widgets -- fall into this category.
  • Information Widgets. These are designed to work with data from the Internet. These widgets allow you to monitor external events such as the weather, flight status or stock prices.

Konfabulator Creator Confounded

The announcement of Dashboard hasn't been free of controversy. One third-party developer and former Apple employee, Arlo Rose, was reportedly outraged by the simularity between Dashboard and his US$25 shareware program called Konfabulator.

"There are aspects to it that are very similar," Smith observed. "On the other hand, I have to say that Dashboard widgets is Konfabulator done right."

"It's pretty pointless to state that Apple stole the idea from Konfabulator," Schoors added. "Apple just picks up general ideas and takes them to a whole other level."

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