Commentary

Widgets, Widgets Everywhere

From the time I first played with mobile widgets Plusmo and WidSets, the format appealed to me as a cool way to organize data sources on a phone. Like their online counterparts, mobile widgets let you skim across a range of data quickly and customize the experience in an attractive way. Take the new version of Zumobi that launched last week. Zumobi is a Windows Mobile widget platform that started at Microsoft and then got spun out into its own company in order to develop on other OSes. The BlackBerry version is imminent.

Zumobi sits on the mobile home page as an icon that opens into a gallery of 16 tiles. One of the great things about mobile widgets is that they are highly efficient for skimming and shallow dipping. In Zumobi's case the tile grid has navigation compasses at the key cross points, so you can pop into a tile without scrolling through the whole set. An Amazon store tile or APNews icon literally zooms to the front and pulls you into a narrowly focused set of features or headlines. The Zumobi interface keeps things under control by limiting the gallery to 16 icons at a time, and you can swap new ones in and out. You can send new tiles to yourself or to others and they show up in an InBox for adding to the gallery.

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For marketers and media brands looking for entry into the mobile space, widgets have some advantages over standalone applications. Development is much easier. The new version of Zumobi, for instance, has a Widget Wizard that anyone can use to design their own new tiles. And then there are the back end metrics that a platform can supply. Ken Willner, Zumobi's vice president of market development, tells me he can see how many people hit a widget how many times, the minutes spent with it, how many widgets are sent wirelessly, etc. Marketers can create branded widgets, like a Mountain Dew game one agency already launched and a tip calculator for Capital One.

One advantage of the Zumobi platform that I can see is the way it caches more content on the device end. Within my Engadget widget, I can hit a headline and get the gadget image and the text of the blog entry without being kicked to a WAP page. The same is true in my APNews widget. The move from headline to story is seamless and without another server hit. Zumobi runs ads at the bottom of the viewing window, so the ad experience is fairly consistent as well. Many mobile widgets just link you over to a URL, but this is more contained and useful without a connection.

All of this works well for the marketer, but what is the consumer's end of it? The market is already getting cluttered on mobile just as it is on the Web with widgets everywhere. Zumobi, Plusmo, Yahoo, and others all are touting the platform, but how do users decide which one to buy into, and whether it cuts them off from the content brands they most like? How many widget platforms are possible here anyway?

And there are some technical hurdles. Zumobi has one answer to the problem of navigating a vast collection of widgets, but I found hopping across these quadrants cumbersome as well. Tracking the highlighted actions in this cluster of menu buttons is not as simple as it should be. The system also is sluggish. Loading the program itself results in lag as it updates the data sets, but even traversing tiles and menus feels stymied by the processor. And as a programming platform, for now at least, widgets just are shallower than applications. The Mountain Dew game had some grizzled mountaineer whacking fellow red necks, but I failed to find the fun in its rough play mechanics.

It is hard to tell whether the widget paradigm is the right one for mobile. It has some efficiencies for managing a range of vertical content types better than WAP bookmarks, but I am not sure the value add for the user is great enough to make the case. One would like to see such interfaces baked into mobile browsers or, like the iPhone, simply be the way the home page works. As I look at them now and play around with the little buggers, it still seems to me the widget platform serves the interests of marketers a bit more than consumers or perhaps even publishers.

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