Monday, June 25, 2007

A Few Thoughts on Mobile Widgets

I have heard of widgets within the context of mobile when referring to various types of applications. Because access (i.e., discovery, availability, ongoing ease of use on the device) is so much more critical in the mobile device the various types of Mobile Widgets should be properly defined and separated:

1) Mobile Web Widgets. These are widgets that are accessed through a Web browser on a phone. The challenges when developing these widgets are similar to those of developing Web widgets – i.e., multi-browser support. Add to that, however, multi-device browser implementation support. There is also the walled-garden that is still part of the browsing experience in most of the feature phones. Not to mention that outside of 1xEvDO the browsing experience is still very slow. Despite of these challenges, this is low hanging fruit with potential to shift part of the carriers’ WAP paradigm. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any companies focusing on this space. If you know of any, please send them my way…

2) PC-like widgets that can be downloaded to mobile devices and that can either run in stand-alone mode or require connectivity to operate, I call Downloadable Mobile Applications. This is simply what they are. These are not any different than a J2ME or Brew game, with the exception that these are being developed by new comers trying to bypass the carriers. While buzz marketing is certainly appreciated, it is important to take into consideration the implications associated with these downloadable applications. One problem with downloadable applications is discovery. How are users going to find these applications? Buried in a Web site? Or even worse, buried in a Mobile Web site? What about devices that prevent downloads to occur from a Web session? Or in a carrier supported application catalog (still buried) where the carrier demands to get paid for it? Another problem is downloading; even with optimal bandwidth, installation could be a confusing to a user and will likely vary per device. Also, a few platforms accommodate applications that reside outside of the walled garden. Take for instance Plusmo, which claims to send a text to your phone after you select your widget of choice. Once you receive the SMS, bam! you’ll be all set! – Sure thing, IF, and perhaps, you have a non-carrier-blocked Smartphone.

The bottom line is to use caution when thinking about designing applications that will require users to a) find them, b) figure out a way to download them c) deal with latency associated with GPRS and 1xRTT, and d) deal with the possibility the mobile platform may not accept the application or may require multiple attempts to download/install (well, other than perhaps… the iphone…). Remember: the mobile world is not like the computer world – it is by far more fragmented in terms of operating systems, different devices with the same OS can behave very differently, the systems are often closely guarded by operators, etc. Do not get caught off guard and make sure to develop with a clear strategy in mind.

For a vast set of examples of these visit Widsets, and Webwag.

3) Web Mobility Widgets (if anyone has a catchier term, please comment) allow Web applications to extend their functionality to mobile devices. Many of these, especially SMS messaging widgets, are showing great promise. Take 3Jam, oTxt by Owdigets, or Textdrop’s widget for MySpace, to name a few. These enjoy the viral, ease of use, and simplicity characteristics of widgets, while tapping into the mobile space in a way that even carriers can welcome their expansion through the Web.

4) PC Mobility Widgets are just like Web Mobility Widgets in that they interact with mobile devices. For the time being, the ones I’ve seen are limited to SMS Messaging whether it is a stand-alone applications or extensions to other applications such as an Instant Messenger or Email client. Great examples are: CallWave’s widget that allows users to listen to their voice mail from their desktop, or Clickatell’s Messenger Pro, which allows users to send/receive text messages directly from their desktop. These are likely to be less popular outside of the Enterprise due to the need to download and install the widget on one’s your computer. An interesting spin off these is SMSalias’ computer browser extension, which also requires downloading/installation.

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