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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Another View on Widgets

Comments (20)

David Cohen has been appropriately nudging me to write my counterpoint to his Big of Bullshit: Widgets post.  Lots has been said about widgets over the past six months, including the ultimate counterindicator article The Year of the Widget? from Newsweek (nothing against Newsweek, but whenever something like this shows up it often means we’ve hit the apex of the phenomenon.)

Lest you think Widgets are new, let’s take a short walk back in history.  Do you remember Active Desktop?  Yup – a nice Windows feature dating back to IE 4.0 that never caught on.  I bet Microsoft has a patent floating around somewhere for this, even though it would be a bogus one because of prior art.  How about DoDots (The Web without a browser) – one of our failed investments.  Similar time frame, incredible technology, clearly ahead of its time, and misunderstood (e.g. a random quote I found in an old usenet archive when poking around – “I never understood their business plan. DoDots was creating software that allowed people to embed internet-based applications on the desktop — sorry, but isn’t that a web browser?”)  Oh – and in case you happen to think Microsoft invented this – think again – they were floating around MIT / Project Athena when I was there in the mid-1980’s (anyone remember “Widget Athena Front End”?)

In the spirit of “everything old is new again”, I give you widgets as a great example.  When Konfabulator came out in 2003, I loved it.  Yahoo ended up buying it (it’s now Yahoo! Widgets) – shockingly Microsoft, Apple, and Google now have similar “widgets” (or “gadgets” or “dashboard thingys”).  All basically the same – now just an extension of the operating system.

In 2004 when I started blogging (and became a “publisher”), I discovered this really interesting thing where I could include stuff on my blog using script type=”text/javascript”.  Some folks used script src=”…” and others just gave me a smart link back to their web service.  Eventually embed’s appeared (thank you Youtube for making this radically popular.)

Like Fred Wilson, I’ve gone through a cycle of putting up and taking down widgets.  I’ve gone through my hunger for more than just dynamic information – I love the social stuff that makes me a publisher that can connect with my actual community of readers.  I got excited about TypePad’s widget implementation, fell in love with MyBlogLog, was psyched about everything FeedBurner did with widgets, and even was intrigued with Widgetbox.

I knew I was in trouble when I started getting notes from entrepreneurs saying “we are going to be the FeedBurner of widgets.”  Then – in a matter of two weeks, I got about a half dozen emails / executive summaries of things that looked like Widgetbox (yes – a couple of them got funded.)  Then – suddenly, everything I saw led with “widgets widgets widgets widgets widgets widgets.”

Enough history – so in David’s words, “is this widget thing big or bullshit?”  This time around, it’s clearly big as an “application container for publishers” but it’s not so clear that all of the derivative businesses make sense.  If you create any web-based services, you need to provide a “widget-like” application container.  Fortunately, this is trivial (in general) although it’s still much harder than it needs to be to incorporate these into all the different types of publisher sites (e.g. just try to integrate your widgets into Microsoft Spaces.) The problem here is one of standards – or lack there of (ad-hoc or otherwise) – right now it is chaos and some folks are trying to tame this.  However, the monetization strategy for taming this is thin, especially given the half-life of the vast majority of widgets (e.g. very short) combined with the overall utility of most widgets (e.g. very small.)

As an investor, I’ve looked at and decided not to invest in “widget management systems.”  However, all of the companies I’ve invested in that provide web services to publishers (including NewsGator, FeedBurner, Lijit, ClickCaster, and Me.dium) are “widgetizing” their services.  FeedBurner is an obvious platform in my universe for this (given their broad relationship with over 350,000 publishers) as they have demonstrated with their integration of Headline Animator with Stats, SpringWidgets, and Lijit Search.

While there might be room for one or two “widget management systems”, there certainly isn’t the need for 23 of them.  In addition, the ability to actually build a real business based on a packaging and distribution system around the application container widget is unclear to me.  So: widget=big; widget-derivative-business=probably-bullshit.

  • http://blog.craz8.com Tom

    Here’s a snippet of widget history that is little known. The widget sidebar thing in Vista started out as an internal Microsoft project in 1999. People inside MS loved it so much that someone decided to put it in the OS and the internal code was removed sometime in 2000.

    Luckily, it only took 7 years to get a replacement shipped!

    In 2000 and 2001 it wasn’t uncommon for people inside MS to refuse a machine upgrade, because they wanted to keep their sidebar widgets and the code was no longer available.

  • http://rfreeborn.blogspot.com/ rob

    while there likely isn’t room for 23 like you said, i do think that there is room for at least one akamai’ish/CDN type platform for widgets so that performance, dead links – stuff like that can be managed out of the process. the widget makers can focus on the content and creativity while the management plaform can focus on the delivery.

  • http://blog.snipperoo.com Ivan Pope

    Brad, if you see 23 widget distribution management systems out there, I'd be interested in your definition of 'widget management'. Maybe you could list these 23 so we can see how they compare – though I suspect almost all of them are widget production and distribution systems. Thanks.

  • http://blog.snipperoo.com Ivan Pope

    Brad, if you see 23 widget distribution management systems out there, I'd be interested in your definition of 'widget management'. Maybe you could list these 23 so we can see how they compare – though I suspect almost all of them are widget production and distribution systems. Thanks.

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    Ivan – I picked the number 23 just to annoy David Cohen – it’s his “bad number” (reference Lost and others.) I also deliberately used the phrase “widget management systems” (vs. including the word “distribution”) – I think WMS is a superset of the subfunctionality that I’m seeing in many of the things that I’ve come across (and your company Snipperoo is in this category.) I like what y’all are doing (and especially like the display of the Lijit Wijit on your home page.) I just worry that there’s no real long term business in what you are doing.

  • http://blog.snipperoo.com Ivan Pope

    Brad, if you see 23 widget distribution management systems out there, I’d be interested in your definition of ‘widget management’. Maybe you could list these 23 so we can see how they compare – though I suspect almost all of them are widget production and distribution systems. Thanks.

  • http://blog.snipperoo.com Ivan

    Brad, 23 :-), ok fair enough. Long term business model – heh, we will see. But – to pick a case at random – what’s the long term business model of Lijit Widget?

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    The Lijit Wijit is simply a distribution channel for Lijit’s search capability. Like many widgets, it’s an “application container” – in this case for easily integrating Lijit’s functionality on publisher’s websites. I don’t view “Lijit” as a “widget” company (or as one of the “23″.) Rather it is one of the N companies (with n rapidly approaching infinity) that use a “widget” to package subsets of their functionality.

  • http://www.pdfchecker.com ahoving

    Yahoo bought Konfabulator because they realized that when MyYahoo! (and every other MyHomepage) explodes, it explodes into desktop widgets. What’s holding widgets back right now is lack of imagination about RSS feeds. Once folks start feeding multimedia, archival material and properly marked ad links (and update around the clock, not just once a day), widgets will be the default Web interface. Desktop real estate and mindshare, dontcha think?

  • http://www.coloradostartups.com David Cohen

    I am sufficiently annoyed.

  • http://www.vcmike.wordpress.com VCMike

    Brad–

    Here is my question: if a significant portion of web traffic is going to be consumed through widgets, isn’t there an opportunity for widget based analystics (ala omniture), ad serving (ala doubleclick) and ad network??

    And if your immediate response is “why not omniture and dblck?” i would ask the same question of Feedburner…

    Now, whehter their is a need for both an RSS management system AND a widget management system is a very real question, I think. But is there an opportunity for a new management system for the new world of distributed, deportalized, syndicated, widgetized content? I think so.

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    Mike – I’ve been pondering that more since this post as I’ve had a number of private emails (including some from the N widget management companies) saying “Feld – you are stupid.” My problem is that I don’t see the advertising opportunity with widgets (maybe I’m missing something obvious.) That leaves analytics and CDN as ways to make money. I don’t think analytics is a fundamental money maker as there are too many incumbent analytics companies (FYI – FeedBurner doesn’t make it’s money on analytics – they are just publisher services that are largely free). CDN is the interesting opportunity and the WMS’s the have masters TLA-like implementations of the CDN’s might end up in an interesting place. I’m thinking about writing another post on this since the private comments I’ve gotten have been so interesting.

  • http://urbanread.com Ali

    Fred,

    At first that is an wonderful article with the Widget management companies in 
    question. Well I came to your blog from Mike’s blog. Well I think the
    conventional way of running an online business have to be dumped when we talk
    about widgets.I am open for more discussion on this but with previous twelve
    comments…I am bit unsure Fred would be listening ….not until he
    superstitious …because this the thirteenth comment.

  • http://lallylogic.startitup.net Brendan Lally

    I believe the eco-system of widgetization (or widgetisation if on IRL/EU side on pond) is still in its infancy.

    Sure we can see the signs, try n focus in the distance and foresee where we’re going with this, try and put our minds back to pre-widgets and grasp some other similiar ‘framework’ that kinda worked b4…

    However no yet knows exactly where this will go; as above we’ve each got ideas on what directions or detours we think it will take.

    Brad seems 2b of the ‘wait-n-c’; David -more pessimistic thats there’s no real money in it; etc..

    Me. I think its a ‘new’ cool technology that APPEARS 2 give value on web pages. Its easy 2 add in and hence part of the reason its getting traction. Its not been shaken around yet to find its true value but the easy distribution model sure helps.

    Lal

  • http://www.startup-marketing.com SeanEllis

    An important piece of widget history often overlooked is Trivia Blitz. It launched in 1997 and by December 1999 had spread to 36,100 websites ranging from Geocities and Tripod personal pages to CNN and Tower Records. It replicated virally through an "add this game to your site" link. I launched this program as a low cost user acquisition tool for Uproar.com leveraging Uproar's offshore development cost advantage. The widget extended the reach of Uproar's game play experience and propelled Uproar.com to the number one ranked game site from 1998 until it's acquisition by Vivendi Universal in 2001. Syndicating content through a widget is not for traditional marketers who obsesses about protecting the brand – which is probaby why Vivendi Universal killed it. But widgets are an ideal way to extend a site's brand experience and ideally engage and acquire users for the mother ship.

  • http://www.startup-marketing.com SeanEllis

    An important piece of widget history often overlooked is Trivia Blitz. It launched in 1997 and by December 1999 had spread to 36,100 websites ranging from Geocities and Tripod personal pages to CNN and Tower Records. It replicated virally through an “add this game to your site” link. I launched this program as a low cost user acquisition tool for Uproar.com leveraging Uproar's offshore development cost advantage. The widget extended the reach of Uproar's game play experience and propelled Uproar.com to the number one ranked game site from 1998 until it's acquisition by Vivendi Universal in 2001. Syndicating content through a widget is not for traditional marketers who obsesses about protecting the brand – which is probaby why Vivendi Universal killed it. But widgets are an ideal way to extend a site's brand experience and ideally engage and acquire users for the mother ship.

  • http://www.startup-marketing.com SeanEllis

    An important piece of widget history often overlooked is Trivia Blitz. It launched in 1997 and by December 1999 had spread to 36,100 websites ranging from Geocities and Tripod personal pages to CNN and Tower Records. It replicated virally through an “add this game to your site” link. I launched this program as a low cost user acquisition tool for Uproar.com leveraging Uproar’s offshore development cost advantage. The widget extended the reach of Uproar’s game play experience and propelled Uproar.com to the number one ranked game site from 1998 until it’s acquisition by Vivendi Universal in 2001. Syndicating content through a widget is not for traditional marketers who obsesses about protecting the brand – which is probaby why Vivendi Universal killed it. But widgets are an ideal way to extend a site’s brand experience and ideally engage and acquire users for the mother ship.

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    Well I think the
    conventional way of running an online business have to be dumped when we talk
    about widgets.I am open for more discussion on this but with previous twelve
    comments..

  • http://www.condomman.com/articles/condom-use/advantages-of-buying-condoms-online/ Cheap Condoms

    However no yet knows exactly where this will go; as above we've each got ideas on what directions or detours we think it will take.

    Brad seems 2b of the 'wait-n-c'; David -more pessimistic thats there's no real money in it; etc..

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Cheap_Condoms Cheap_Condoms

    Sure we can see the signs, try n focus in the distance and foresee where we're going with this, try and put our minds back to pre-widgets and grasp some other similiar 'framework' that kinda worked b4…

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