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Tracking the DIY phenomenon Part 1: Widgets, badges, and gadgets, by Dion Hinchcliffe

Images and text source: ZDnet

February 19th, 2007

One of the hallmarks of a good Web 2.0 site is one that hands over non-essential control to users, letting them contribute content, participate socially, and even fundamentally shape the site itself.  The premise is that users will do a surprising amount of the hard work necessary to make the site successful, right down to creating the very information the site offers to its other users and even inviting their friends and family members to use it.  Web 2.0 newcomers MySpace and YouTube have shown how this can be done on a mass scale surprisingly quickly, and of course older generation successes like eBay and craigslist have been doing this for years.

There’s little question that the Web is increasingly turning into a sort of online Home Depot with its shelves lined with thousands of useful, off-the-shelf parts of every description and utility.As part of this, users are getting increasingly accustomed to the ease of which they can customize their own corners of the Internet, whether it’s a blog, profile page, Web site or even Web application.  While skinning and customizable layouts have been with us on the Web for a long time, increasingly users want to share — or particularly important to this discussion — even repurpose the content and services they find on the Web in locations and forms of their choosing.

Particularly younger, Web-savvy users have been encrusting their blogs and MySpace profiles with things like badges and widgets for a while now, especially now that a significant number of Web sites have opened up their content to let users do this.  In fact, these increasingly portable visual parts are now becoming quite commonplace, easy to consume by regular Web users, and are becoming richer and more useful all the time.   In fact, the spread of widgets, and badges — also called gadgets by the big Web players like Microsoft and Google — has been very clear in the last year and there are now hundreds of them readily available to use after a minute or two of configuration.

Motivation, Benefits, and Business Models

It seems obvious that portable Web parts, which I’ll call widgets from here on out since that seems to be the growing consensus on terminology, confer a lot of benefits to those that use them.  Widgets let anyone put the high value services and content of the Web’s leading companies right on their own site, for anyone to use.  There are widgets readily available that offer customized local Google search, weather maps, instant messaging, social bookmarking, site meters, games, and even entire software applications.  And most of them can be installed with a bit of GUI configuration and a cut and paste.  There’s little question that the Web is increasingly turning into a sort of online Home Depot with its shelves lined with thousands of useful, off-the-shelf parts of every description and utility.

The DIY Era: Web widgets, badges, and gadgets

So while it’s clear that there’s a lot of value to end-users to repurpose the valuable functionality and information from elsewhere on the Web for their own needs, what does this confer to the Web sites that offer them?   Doesn’t making it possible for users to “peel off” the best parts of a site and stick them on their own ruin the monetization model that powers so much of the Web?  I’m talking about page views and the resulting advertising revenue.

Interestingly, despite these concerns and others (like protection of IP displayed on someone else’s site) I’m seeing Internet startups and successful online properties both take a careful look at “widgitization” and other forms of openness, like APIs.  The value proposition of chunking up and modularizing content and services into bite-sized reusable pieces is becoming increasingly clear.  As an example, one of the most impressive uses of widgets in recent memory has been the ubiquitous YouTube video badge that seems to be practically everywhere on the Internet these days.

Particularly because it has so many viral distribution pieces built into it, the YouTube badge is the canonical example of the power of opening up and letting the entire Web distribute your content for you.  Not content just to ask you if you’d like to share a video with friends via e-mail (resulting in friends forwarding to friends, and to their friends and so on) but YouTube makes the code snippet for embedding it right on your own site or blog readily visible and available to the right of each video.  Not content just to have their content just on a single site, YouTube realized that it was by mobilizing millions of users to extend the YouTube platform to their own sites that they could achieve lasting and durable network effects.  E-mail propagation is powerful but it’s almost certainly no match for having millions of persistent, discoverable YouTube badge installations all over the Web.

What are the technical issues involved in using the different widget models?  Here’s my take and here are some interesting points from Jeremy Zawodny.

From this, the advantage of widgitizing a site’s capabilities is clearer:  You move beyond the single Web site model and turn the entire Web into a content distribution system.  Certainly, the rise of RSS and syndication proved the power of this model: the best content would rise to the top of the ecosystem it became  part of us, and while the syndication ecosystem is now very large, it it’s no match for the power and reach of the entire Internet.

Widgets Adoption Driven by Network Effects

This reflect that fact that market leadership on the Internet is driven by a simple formula: you must gain new users at least as fast as you are losing old ones, preferably much faster.  If you’re still playing the old single Web site game, aren’t using syndication strategically, and haven’t leveraged the entire Web as a platform for your content and services, changes are that you’re at a significant competitive disadvantage.  Even the page views/advertising issues aren’t as big as expected.  Widgets actually don’t take away from business models based on advertising, and in fact, can complement advertising viewership significantly.  For example, I’m seeing more and more widgets (such as Blake Schwendiman’s Google Traffic Widget) put advertising right into the widget itself.

Do you want to see what widgets are currently out there? Check out Widgetbox, Google Gadgets, and Microsoft Gadgets for a taste of what is currently available.

However, like all new things, particularly on the giant living laboratory of the Web, it’s likely that the long-term advantages and risks still aren’t well understood.  While it sounds compelling to let users innovate using your content and services in widget form elsewhere on the Web, theoretically letting it be used in hundreds or even thousands of creative news ways, there are certainly important things to consider when you prepare to embrace this new model:

Considerations when designing widgets

* Security: Clearly thinking through all the cross domain issues, sharing of personal data (since many valuable widgets and badges share up a users’s personal data such as pictures or video),
* Scalability: Most widgets and badges are loaded up from your site and not from the site that’s using the widget.  Most often a Javascript include is used or an embed tag, either of which means that your site is responsible for supplying each Web site using your widget with a responsive experience.  Yes, that means YouTube is providing millions of views a day of video on other Web sites other than their own and is providing the bandwidth to do so.
* Reliability: Being the preferred providing of a given type of widget means being there for your users 24×365.  I call this the hockey stick problem with Web 2.0 and network effects, and if you get geometric growth by viral adoption of your widgets, you can be in for quite a ride if you haven’t capacity planned.
* Intellectual property issues: Depending on what kind of content you are serving up through your widget, you will need to worry about at least two things: 1) do you have a license to redistribute it and 2) does you widget make it hard for others to take content out of the widget.  The second one is important since that means you can lose control of your data.  YouTube struggles with this constantly and tries to make it hard for users to remove videos content from the YouTube badge.  Finally, if you display advertising in your widget, do you have to screen the content on the Web site that uses your widget?  Advertisers are notoriously finicky about protecting their brands and this can also be an issue.
* Ease of Consumption:  After having the best source of content or functionality, being easy for end-users to use is a must.  Your widget really must be a simple copy and paste to deploy or the rate at which your widget will be adopted will be severely curtailed.  This is true even if your widget is otherwise the best in its class.  Triggering network effects requires removing any barrier to use and sharing, both.
* Leveraging Network Effects:  A widget that doesn’t encourage every viewer to share it with others is greatly reducing its value.  While this doesn’t make sense with all widgets, such as some Ajax user interface widgets, make sure that you are activating the full potential of the network is essential, and letting users copy the widget, send invitations, or otherwise initiate feedback loops is essential for broadening distribution.
* End User Motivation:  Users will embrace and use a widget if it does something useful for them.  This can be sharing interesting content, providing shared access to their personal data such as photos or audio, or even paying them, as Google does with AdSense. Clearly understanding the reasons why your users might want to use your widget in particular is essential for uptake and success.

The modern Web is increasingly turning into a Web built by its users.  The Do it Yourself (DIY) phenomenon on the Web is being driven both by the availability of widgets to easily mix and create terrific new sites out of, but also the comfort with which users have with controlling all aspects of the Web.  And though this blog primarily focuses on the application of Web 2.0 technologies to the enterprise, early indications are that widgets could be a powerful uptake mechanism for grassroots SOA adoption and other aspects of consumerization of the enterprise.

Finally, the emphasize the important of all this, note that the widget already has the claim to fame to being one of the most financially successful techniques in the history of the Internet.  The Google AdSense badge, which Google displays the majority of its advertising on, uses hundreds of thousands of sites as billboards everywhere and generates the majority of Google’s advertising revenue.

Note: This entry is part 1 of a 2 part blog post on the DIY phenomenon on the Web.  Next we’ll take a look at the DIY aspect of Web applications and take a look at mashups and service mixing, the former which is also being driven by the proliferation of widgets to supply the raw parts.

Are you starting to use widgets on your blogs and Web sites?  Why or why not?

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