Yahoo Rewrites Script for Webs Next Act

Opinion: Konfabulator acquisition moves content provider into post-browser network-service delivery.

When youre new to a city and havent yet figured out the good places to go, you need a car. Its a complex piece of equipment, and driving exposes you to substantial risks, but you want that flexibility to go anywhere and carry anything. After a while, though, you know the places youll want to visit most often, and you can take the subway or ride a bicycle; you can carry a shopping bag or backpack, instead of hauling around an SUV-sized cargo space.

When you know where youre going and why, subways or bikes are a lot more cost-effective than automobiles. Thats how I feel about the similar cyberspace transition from browsers to widgets.

We can talk about widgets with a lower-case "w" now that theyre not just a feature of Apples Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger," but have become a wide-open multiplatform technology following Yahoos acquisition of Pixoria Inc. The latter companys Konfabulator offering has actually been available as a third-party offering for the Macintosh since February 2003, and for Windows since late last year. Theres been plenty of network chatter about the degree to which Apple did or didnt copy Konfabulator in devising the Tiger "Dashboard," but thats just smoke and noise that obscures the more important point: Instead of looking at the Web through the windshield of a Web browser, and hoping that you dont get blindsided by drunk-driving malware, you can now build yourself a subway line of widgets that has stops exactly where you want them.

"Our big thing is that were completely cross-platform, widgets will work exactly the same," asserted Pixoria CEO Arlo Rose when we spoke late last week in advance of this mornings announcement of the July 19 deal. Nor will the newly renamed "Yahoo Widgets" platform be limited to Windows and Macintosh clients: The plan, said Rose, is to take advantage of the lightweight JavaScript-based model and "to start extending that -- to start reaching other technologies that have Web content delivered to them, whether thats your cell phone or your Tivo."

And what Yahoo gets out of the deal is an easy way to pave a nice, smooth bike path to its own services-based destinations. "Were starting to open more pieces of Yahoo to third-party developers. Weve done that so far mostly through Web services," explained Yahoo Developer Network VP Tony Schneider during the same conversation just mentioned above. "You have to be very motivated" to write the scripts that access services at that low level, Schneider acknowledged, as anyone will agree whos gotten more than a few pages into OReilly Medias "Google Hacks" or "Amazon Hacks" or other such guides to Web service exploitation. "What Konfabulator allows us to do is wrap those APIs and data sources into a form that anyone who knows what XML is, and can do a little bit of scripting, can deploy them on a desktop -- its really going to lower the bar," Schneider predicted.

Id lose interest quickly if I felt that widgets were limited to the least intelligent sorts of task, but JavaScript is not a toy language. Yes, its easy to learn: "Weve had amazing success with 11- and 12-year-olds learning to program that way and in a few days submitting really wonderful things," said Rose of his observations of introductory programming classes based on widgets. But JavaScript can do a lot, and it can also call other scripting tools that are either included on platforms or widely available in free versions -- Perl, for example.

Ill go into more depth about the crucial role of scripting languages and associated technologies in the Aug. 8 issue of eWEEK, for those of you who receive the monthly Developer Solutions special sections in our print publication; youll also find those stories soon afterward on

In the meantime, tell me what widgets would quickly earn a place on your desktop at


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