Translation Please: Spanning The Wide World of Widgets

Widgets, widgets, widgets. Everywhere the widgets.

If last month’s Consumer Electronics Show is any predictor, the world of widgets is aimed squarely at the television set. Intel Corp. and Yahoo! led the CES widget pack, displaying their work on HDTV sets made by LG Electronics and Samsung.

What’s a widget? It used to be that “widgets” lived in economics. “Widget” was generic for “anything a factory makes.” Widgets helped economists calculate percentage gains or losses in production.

Following an economics definition dating back to 1931, the Oxford English Dictionary describes a widget this way: “A visual symbol on a computer screen; the software and data involved.” [That citation came from 2003.]

Widgets are already big in the computing and mobile worlds. Apple runs a “widget warehouse,” with hundreds of applications grouped by category. There’s a Top 50 list, as well as “staff picks.” Widgets exist to translate text into other languages, to read product bar codes and find cheaper prices at nearby stores, even to create your dream aquarium. [Search for “fishdom.”]

At CES, the work done by Yahoo! and Intel showed up as a “TV widget bar,” populated with graphical icons. Ebay was on it, as was Netflix, and CBS Entertainment. Also the standard interactive TV fare: weather, finance, news, sports.

What’s still unclear is what it takes for a developer to get a widget onto an LG, Samsung or other HDTV screen. At CES, widget people from Yahoo! and Intel said they don’t want to be in charge of testing or certifying widgets. They mentioned a “working group” to handle that body of work.

Here’s why this matters, relative to devices stuffed with enviable amounts of processing power, graphics flexibility, and memory: margins. If the years of work between cable and consumer electronics on “two way plug and play” proved anything, it’s that asking a CE manufacturer to arbitrarily add more muscle, in order to do more in software, is asking for the moon.

Here’s one view of how the TV Widget certification process could go: Developer Jane builds a widget. [Widget-talk frequently defaults to how easy and open the software development kits are.]

Let’s say it’s a widget that turns the remote control into a homing device for every small thing in your electronic garden. Click on the widget; hear audible clues from your blackberry, phone, memory stick, ipod, and digital camera. [You need this too, right?]

Developer Jane submits her widget to a Yahoo/Intel “working group” for test. That likely costs her some cash. Let’s say that gets the go. From there, Developer Jane probably treks to LG, or Samsung, to get blessed for inclusion on their next batch of HDTV sets. That probably costs her some cash, too.

If Jane wants to get her remote homing widget into anybody else’s HDTV sets? Lather, rinse, repeat.

What about when she adds more gadgets to the list of things the remote can detect, via the widget? How do they get to LG’s and Samsung’s widget sets?

Anyone familiar with the 30+ year tale of interactive television has seen this movie before. What’s thick today is thin tomorrow, in terms of end-device capabilities.

Interestingly, all of the “TV widget” demos at CES included a toggle feature – between the TV Widget tru2way sides of the box. Politically, this is proof that cable operators aren’t denying CE manufacturers a broadband spigot into the TV.

Tactically, it means that the widget world could have a future in digital set-top boxes – especially for the 50% of U.S. households who already purchased an HDTV, and aren’t planning on buying another any time soon.

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