The Widget Box

"Your phone is screwed up," my daughter announces as she hands it back to me in disgust. "You wrecked it."

Actually, all I did was customize the phone by pushing all of those iPhone and Web app icons around to my liking. In the process, I rudely obstructed my daughter's hijacking of my phone as her back-up device. You see, when her battery dies after hours of texting to the boyfriend, she grabs my phone to continue the exchange of "whassup?" and "I'm bored" messages. My fiancé does the same thing. Whenever we are driving somewhere and I suggest she call someone for us, she asks me for my phone. "Mine is dead -- forgot to charge it."

But then she does that eerie thing that is destined to drive me nuts the rest of my life. "Your phone is screwed up. You wrecked it." I am going to need an out-of-home hobby.

I admit, since Apple updated the iPhone OS I have gotten a little widget-happy. The icons now flow across several screens, and I rarely even use my browser bookmarks anymore. Years ago, I recall loving the customization features of the Motorola RAZR, which let me surface on the top level screen four direct links to email and Web and such.



But the widget approach we see on the iPhone and on others like the Windows Mobile Zumobi platform is closer to the ideal. Mobile operating systems generally have been impediments to accessing content, and not the facilitators they should be. Years ago I argued that in order for mobile data to really take off in the way many publishers intended, as drive-by-content snacks, then the interface had to accommodate that mode of consumption. Opening a phone, getting connected, navigating to a browser, loading the browser, then loading the bookmarks, then clicking the link, is about five clicks further than most of us want to go if we have three minutes to check the news. Having one-button access to your three or four most important sources of information at the home screen makes all the difference in the world. I know that my use of mobile Web data has escalated substantially now that the icons present themselves at start-up.

And it has the added benefit of thwarting interlopers from using your phone.

"I think it has a virus," the two-headed daughter/fiancé conspiracy says.

"Stop whacking it. It's not broken. It's just mine now."

Getting them both to fume in unison has become a drive-time mini-game for me.

The widgets clearly are coming to phones across multiple operating systems. Today, online social app platform MuseStorm announced an extension to its Widget Studio that quickly develops widgets for the iPhone. CEO Ori Soen tells me that brand marketers, agencies, and media clients have been pressing for tools that port widgets to the phone, specifically the iPhone. Publishers can use the same tools that also produce their Facebook and Bebo apps and save it as an iPhone app. Soen tells me that one retailer will be rolling out a cross-platform widget campaign that will distribute tips and how-to videos.

The strength of using a consistent widget platform on mobile is measurability. You can track distribution and engagement, sharing, page impressions, stream usage, etc. Soen says that media companies like CBS are using their daily metrics to adjust programming and update content.

But the downside of widgets may still be clutter and discoverability. There is something to be said for the portal approach carriers generally take to mobile content. It does provide an integrated search-and-discovery mechanism (albeit terrible), where the operator has the opportunity to cross-promote new content. Widgets aspire to a viral distribution mechanism, but many brands are finding it hard to get traction as the market bunches up with thousands of these things. The online widget maker mediaFORGE tells me that distribution remains the critical issue for the brands they represent. You can build it, but then the widget just gets lost in these bloated libraries of countless options. And so mediaFORGE just launched a new ad unit that actually leverages the ad network to distribute embedded widgets. Viewers can engage in the ad banner itself or hijack the unit for their desktop or social network.

As widgets migrate more to mobile, and I hope they do, I wonder if we will have to devise a more mobile-centric way of aiding their discovery. Obviously the brands I already like online or on mobile will be able to push their apps to me. But if each of us starts using these convenient but narrow paths to access select content, what are the opportunities for finding others?

Personalization has its privileges (not the least of which is daughter-proofing your phone), but it also has its price. I know I am not the first one to note how high degrees of customization and personalization also trap us in content boxes of our own making. If there is no common gateway on which we can encounter the new, then the niches we occupy quickly become deep ruts. There is a personal price we pay for missing out on a common culture. But there is also a new conundrum for marketers. How can they find us if we can't even manage to find them? Like Star Trek's Tribbles, widgets are fun and cute in limited numbers. But as they proliferate and clog up every nook and cranny, every one starts looking the same.

"Why do you have three icons with fedora hats on here?" they complain.

"It is meant to throw you off. Consider the phone encrypted, now. Use your own."

"Hmm. Well, if that's the way you want to play it, we are pretty sure we are going to have to stop every thirty minutes to use the bathroom this trip."

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