Why Yahoo Bought Konfabulator

Yahoo’s recent purchase of Pixoria, developer of the quirky but seriously cool Konfabulator platform, has many pundits scratching their heads—what on earth would a web search company want with all of those software widgets?

Pixoria describes Konfabulator product as “a JavaScript runtime engine for Windows and Mac OS X that lets you run little files called Widgets that can do pretty much whatever you want them to.”

What are Widgets? A few examples include alarm clocks and calculators; Widgets can measure and indicate your WiFi signal strength, will fetch the latest stock quotes for your preferred symbols, and even give your current local weather. Other Widgets do search related tasks, such as looking up words in dictionaries or articles in Wikipedia.

In short, they’re specialized, mini-applications that run constantly in the background, always ready to provide you with a bit of useful information, whether or not you have a browser open. Two other key points: Widgets take full advantage of the powerful graphics capabilities of modern computers. And Konfabulator is open-source, meaning anyone can create a Widget and share it with the world.

And that’s why Yahoo purchased Konfabulator. “We want to make sure that people realize that this our strategy for doing outside-the-browser things with our properties,” said Arlo Rose, Konfabulator co-founder and now part of the new Yahoo Widgets team.

Even before buying Konfabulator, Yahoo has been pushing forward on several fronts to ease access into the company’s vast storehouses of content and services. For example, Yahoo APIs are available for developers to build their own Yahoo-centric search applications. Other APIs allow developers to build applications on top of Yahoo maps, music and Flickr services, and to integrate Yahoo content into web sites via RSS feeds.

Within days of acquiring Konfabulator, Yahoo had provided links within the Yahoo Developer Network directly to Konfabulator’s developer documentation and forums.

Currently, developers can create Widgets that tap into just about any open data source on the Web. Rose is emphatic that Yahoo maintain this open access going forward. He also said that we’ll soon be seeing a whole slew of Widgets that expose parts of the Yahoo network that are relatively hidden away.

If you have yet to try Konfabulator, download the program to your own computer. It’s free, and runs on both Windows and Mac computers. During the installation process, Konfabulator loads up a few sample Widgets on your computer so you can get a sense of how they work and what’s available. Don’t like a particular widget? Just close it and you’ll never see it again.

Konfabulator Widgets appear on your desktop, and most have options that allow you to control their behavior and appearance. Most Widgets are visually striking, with 3-D effects, shadows and luscious shading.

On installation, you’ll see four Yahoo-ized Widgets appear, with a bunch of others available simply by opening them up. The four initial Widgets include one that offers browserless-access to Yahoo search, a “picture frame” that automatically displays photos in your My Pictures folder or from your Flickr account, a weather Widget and a Widget for displaying information such as stock prices from Yahoo Finance.

Looking at some existing Widgets created by third-party developers offers clues about the kind of Yahoo-flavored Widgets we can expect in the future. All of these Widgets are available at no cost through the Konfabulator Widget Gallery—not all are available for both Mac and Windows, so be sure to check a Widget’s operating system requirements before downloading.

Movie Habit shows the latest first-run and DVD reviews from Movie Habit. We could have a similar Widget from Yahoo movies that includes personalized movie recommendations.

Gmail Search and Check allows you to search your Gmail from your desktop and check your Gmail account for unread messages. How about a Yahoo Mail Widget, anyone?

iTunes Companion searches for album cover art for your current iTunes track at amazon.com and downloads it to your hard drive. I love this Widget. For some reason, album art didn’t get included when I ripped my CD collection, and the iTunes Companion is gradually filling all of the gaps. Better yet, this happens automatically—all I need to do is start playing an album and the artwork almost magically appears in the little CD case that the Widget uses to display cover art.

It’s easy to see how this Widget could be adapted to Yahoo Music, but think of what it could do with a little elbow grease. In addition to downloading album art, it could search the All Music Guide for discographies, artist info, and other information. It could run a Yahoo web search and tell you when the artist is next appearing live in your neighborhood. It could tap into some of the music recommendation services and suggest additional, related artists for you to listen to. The possibilities are endless, and at least to this music junkie, very exciting.

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of Widgets available today. With Yahoo’s support over the next few months I expect the number of Widgets available will explode. Because Konfabulator is based on JavaScript, anyone with basic programming skills can create Widgets with relative ease.

According to Rose, Yahoo has dismissed the idea of delivering advertising via Widgets. While this is a laudable goal in the short run, allowing users to get comfortable using Widgets, there’s nothing stopping third-party developers from inserting ads in the Widgets they create. And for many applications, Widgets provide a clear contextual framework that would be ideally suited to serving highly-targeted ads. So we’ll see.

To me, Yahoo’s acquisition of Konfabulator makes perfect sense, and between Yahoo’s own engineers and everyone else who gets the urge to mess around creating Widgets, I think we’re going to see an explosion of seriously cool new tools and gateways into Yahoo emerge during the next year.

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