Commentary

Wascally Widgets

My guess is it will be unclear for a while whether Apple made a wise decision in restricting iPhone development to Web-based widgets. To its credit, the company is trying to preserve usability by keeping third parties (other than YaGoogle, of course) off the deck. But even the best early apps designed for the iPhone Safari browser are nothing more than Web bookmarks that you have to recall you have.

"It impedes discoverability," says Rajeev Raman, CEO, MyWaves, the off-deck mobile video hub. Elsewhere, MyWaves works in a downloadable Java app so users can subscribe to and pull down many of the same vodcasts they get from iTunes. "Look at how easy it is for some of our users to access our service with other devices. We can be in the menu structure; they can choose to put it in their phone. Not being able to do this kind of stuff [on the iPhone] kinda hurts."

In fact, MyWaves.com is among the first video sites that does work well with the iPhone, since the Safari browser on this device generally breaks the video on most sites. Flash support is coming, we hear, but who knows when and if we will see Windows Media playing nicely in this walled garden. The MyWaves servers can detect an incoming iPhone and kick the browser over to a fully functional version of the site that Raman and his team have been working on since they first saw the specs in the Apple developer program. Even then, a lot of things didn't work at first and it took hand-tweaking to get it running. Perhaps it is promising that a third-party developer like MyWaves was able to slip in and do off-deck with the iPhone what Apple itself doesn't do yet, actually subscribe to podcasts from the phone.

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Even while relegated to the browser, other developers are already starting to fix some of the things that are wrong with the iPhone. The excellent Applists, for instance, does what Apple should have done for its Web-app strategy: offer an easier interface for gathering all the third-party widgets into one spot. Applists.com is both a catalog and a personal portal for iPhone widgets. Once you subscribe to one of the 87 widgets, its icon appears on your MyApps page, which mimics the iPhone deck. A number of the items in the Applists are really just WAP versions of major media like ESPN, but that is good too. One of the inherent weaknesses of the iPhone's full browser approach is that all sites detect it as a normal browser and so you can't default into the WAP version, which is all many people on the go really want or need anyway. And believe me, on the EDGE network (which is better and worse than predicted, all according to whether you have tin foil in your pocket), having the option to fall back to lighter WAP pages would be appreciated.

Applists is precisely the kind of shortcut to Web apps that Apple should have on the deck itself if it really wants to encourage this online widget approach. If Apple is going to force third parties off the deck, then at least put a better point of customization/aggregation of those widgets on the deck.

And finally, social media site digg comes into the iPhone's small world with its version that looks pretty neat at http://www.digg.com/iphone. It is a very simple, iPod-like interface that slides a headline into a full-screen blurb of the article. This second page gives you options for digg voting and shows user comments and has the link to the target page. This is how the iPhone exerts some influence outside of the 10 million or so who may buy in over the next year. Rudimentary and obvious as it is, this is just a cool, smarter way to present information on a small screen. It lets you move from index to small detail to full article in three steps but back out easily from the detail you want. This architecture lets you drill for content but with a series of smart plateaus. If the iPhone interface helps move developers in the direction of cleaner, faster information architecture, then it was worth the hype.

Watch the widgets. They may be showing us where to head next.

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