Apple this week revived something that by all accounts seemed to be on its way out. Widgets, or the small apps designed to display information and solve simple tasks, are now more present in OS X and now iOS than they’ve ever been. As part of OS X Yosemite, and iOS 8 — both of which are coming this fall — widgets can be found with a flick of the finger (or mouse) and show small, easily-digestible bits of information. That’s not a new thing for Apple, which had a similar idea of tiny apps 30 years ago, or a slew of other companies that have pushed the medium forward. Here’s a brief history of where widgets and tiny apps have been ahead of where Apple’s taking them this fall.
- Apple Desk Accessories (1984) Apple’s desk accessories were originally called desk ornaments, and were created by founding Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld off an idea from fellow early Apple employee Bud Tribble. The goal was to get single-purpose apps like a calculator, clock, puzzle game, sticky note, and control panel for various settings. In a time when the Mac could only handle one application at a time, these smaller apps were designed to be super lightweight and single-serving in their nature. Hertzfeld has a detailed narrative on how the original feature came to be on Folklore. (James Friend)
- Microsoft Active Desktop (1997) Active Desktop was a big push from Microsoft to inject the desktop of your computer with the internet. It was a blend of Windows 95 and Internet Explorer 4.0 with content that would live on your desktop, but that would get updated from the web. There were items like stock tickers, and news feeds, but they weren’t quite widgets. All these things lived between your wallpaper and desktop icons. Microsoft also put a sidebar with shortcuts to its sites and partner sites that would load in IE. The feature was eventually replaced with proper widgets as part of Windows Vista. (Photo courtesy of Paul McFedries)
- Konfabulator (2003) Konfabulator was not the first desktop widget software, but it had one of the most interesting histories. The software let you put small, single-serving widgets on your desktop, and worked on both Macs and PCs. When Apple rolled out Dashboard in 2005, many — including Konfabulator’s creator — believed Apple had ripped off the idea, along with some of its widgets. Just months after Dashboard’s debut, Yahoo acquired Konfabulator in mid-2005, renaming it Yahoo Widgets and making it free. Yahoo eventually closed the service up in early 2012, putting its effort into widgets on TV sets instead. (Ged Carroll/Flickr)
- Apple Dashboard (2005) Dashboard shipped as one of the headlining features in OS X 10.4 Tiger, and is a layer on top of the desktop with small, single-serving widgets. These would appear and disappear with a keystroke. The feature originally came with just 14 widgets, only a handful of which would connect to the internet. Others, like a calculator, address book, iTunes remote, and stickies widgets all served as companions to more fully-featured desktop apps. Apple eventually turned Dashboard into a “space” as part of its multiple desktop management tool in OS X Lion in 2011, though users can still make it a translucent layer over their desktop.
- Windows Vista sidebar (2006) Microsoft’s Windows Vista added a sidebar to the right of the desktop, which was home to what the company called “gadgets.” These included a small clock, an RSS reader, calendar, currency converter, sticky notes, weather widget, and CPU meter. Microsoft also maintained a page where other gadgets could be downloaded. Microsoft eventually phased the feature out in Windows 8. (DeclanTM/Flickr)
- Google Android (2008) Widgets were part of the very first version of Android. Google imagined them as “little applications that reside in the Home Application,” according to an early draft specification that was created in July 2006, more than two years before the first Android device came out. “They are meant to be simple, graphical representations of interesting data,” the company added. Things like weather, stocks, and sports scores were all imagined in the beginning, since then, the widgets have evolved as companions to full apps.
- Windows Phone Live Tiles (2010) Before Windows Phone 7, Windows Mobile had a number of third-party widget tools from outside developers that would display widgets on the Today screen. Microsoft replaced the need for many with its Windows Phone 7 home screen, giving certain apps information right on the icon. Things like weather, calendar, and email got visual information when there was something new, so you could see it without even going into the app. Microsoft also made it so you could resize the tiles, usually displaying more as the tile was made larger. In Windows Phone 8.1, Live Tiles were still there, but could become translucent to show you the wallpaper behind it.
- Apple OS X Yosemite (2014) Dashboard as we know it still exists in Yosemite, but Apple’s strongly de-emphasized it in favor of putting widgets in Notification Center. That sidebar, which can be pulled out from the side and quickly dismissed, is a recent addition to OS X. Users can pick the widgets they want to show up on the “today” section of Notification Center, and get extra ones through the Mac App Store. Previously, Apple maintained a site of third-party Dashboard widgets where the paid ones came with free trials or needed to be purchased from an outside website. That’s all going through the App Store now. (Apple/YouTube)
- Apple iOS 8 (2014) Widgets in iOS 8 aren’t anything like Dashboard on OS X, or the home-screen widgets on Android. Instead, Apple’s put them in Notification Center, where they can be added or rearranged. Also unlike what’s been found in OS X’s Dashboard, these widgets have more in common with the information cards in Siri. That includes things like sports scores, news stories, and information from package delivery companies — basically glanceable, ephemeral information. (Apple)