January 4, 2007

Opera contests draws attention to widget development

Author: Nathan Sanders

With the latest release of its Web browser in June, Opera Software introduced widgets -- small Web applications that run in their own windows on the desktop. Now the company is turning to programming contests to promote their creation.

Opera widgets are similar to the "gadgets" and other desktop applets available for widget engines made by KDE, GNOME, Apple, Yahoo, DesktopX, and now even Microsoft. The Artist's Sketchbook widget by Jakub Adamczyk, for instance, is an impressive painting program that will never unseat Photoshop or the GIMP, but can give Microsoft Paint and other less specialized image editing programs a run for their money. Another of Adamczyk's projects, SimAquarium, is addicting and deep enough that one can imagine it once having been sold alongside early Maxis titles.

Opera widgets range from the simple and novel to the fantastic and valuable. At the simple end, the Gmail Checker is a minimalist mail notifier, and you can find a basic to-do list manager in dotoo. Other widgets are more complex, such as the graphing utility Functions 3D and the solar system modeler PlanetWerks. Write! and Charts, meanwhile, bring rudimentary office productivity functionality to the Web browser. Games range from the scrolling shooter Galaxy Fighter to Circular Tetris. More widgets can be found at Opera's widget homepage. They can be run with Opera for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X, and have varying support for the myriad of other platforms Opera supports, including mobile phones.

Adding competition to the marketplace

Currently, Opera is hosting an Opera Widget World Cup competition as motivation for developers who might not otherwise be able to profit from widgets. Thirteen widget developers whose widgets were downloaded most from each qualifying country by November 15 were awarded a €1,000 national prize. Qualifying countries were required to have at least five widgets with 500 or more downloads each. The national winners are now competing for a €2,000 international prize, for which their widgets must qualify by achieving 25,000 downloads and being selected by judges.

This is not Opera's first attempt to use competitions and prizes to spur third-party development. Previous competitions have included The Gathering for best overall widget, whose grand prize was a "performance gaming" computer; Widget Idol, "to the developers who create the most impressive widgets," where one widget author per week was given a "grab bag" from ThinkGeek, three monthly winners were given Nokia 770s, and the grand prize winner was given a 15-inch Macbook Pro; and an Opera Widgets T-shirt giveaway, where authors were rewarded for meeting a new style guideline that mandated a "close" button on all widgets. The latest contest puts a Nintendo Wii, a Nintendo DS Lite, and eight "goodie bags" up for grabs, and will be judged, in part, by the Opera community. Both the Nintendo gadgets have had the Opera browser ported to them.

Opera's competitions bear a strong resemblance to the bounty programs so often used in the free software world. In these instances, programmers are not being paid for their work, nor are they selling it for profit. They are, instead, being rewarded for accomplishing certain tasks that serve to better the greater community. Daniel Goldman, technical evangelist for Opera Software and chief editor of the OperaWatch blog, says that "competitions such as the Widget World Cup are an excellent method for making sure good and creative developers get the proper recognition for their work. The competition also encourages the developers to spread and promote their widgets; we've had more than two million widgets downloaded on our site already."

The widget developers themselves seem to agree. Guilherme Campos, author of the Brazilian national prize-winning True HTML Editor widget, says, "The prize of the national contest was my greatest motivation." Adamczyk, developer of Polish national prize-winner SimAquarium and other noteworthy widgets, feels similarly. "First of all, making widgets is fun and (relatively) simple. I developed my first widget simply because I thought it was a cool idea to make a small application using HTML and JavaScript. But the biggest motivation was the MacBook Pro competition and the Widget World Cup organized by Opera."

Ultimately, though, widget developers acknowledge that competitions may not be enough. Campos says, "It's very good motivation for a 'weekend widget programmer.' But if you want to motivate a developer to make them professionally, a competition is a bad idea."

Making money from widgets

Opera has submitted its widget specification to the W3C for approval as an open standard. Opera's W3C widget specification mandates that widgets be distributed in standard interpreted Web technologies such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, archived as a ZIP file -- thus all widgets are open source software. Whether the Opera community is best served by open or closed source widgets is a now topic of debate.

For the time being, widget authors will have to rely on winnings, as there are few other ways to make money from widgets. Developers are free to specify whatever license they wish for their widgets, but since the source code is stored in an unprotected ZIP file, it's unrealistic to expect users will comply with restrictive licenses. At least one case of unsolicited modification has already occurred -- another Opera user altered Adamczyk's SimAquarium widget to make the game easier, an action that the developer later sanctioned. SimAquarium has had about 250,000 downloads, and several comments on its Opera.com page indicate that people are so pleased that they would be willing to pay for it.

As with other open source software, developers could profit by selling associated services. Unfortunately, few will pay for support plans or shrink-wrapped boxes for widgets. Goldman suggests that authors could force widgets to retrieve content from a proprietary and protected backend server, but this forces overhead costs on the author and would not be appropriate for all widgets.

Adamczyk says, "I don't see many possibilities in selling widgets directly ... but I can imagine a situation where I could offer some additional features in a popular widget for a small fee. The widget still could be free for download and open source, because the extra features could be done server-side and offered after registration."

Goldman suggests that the most powerful arena for profit from widgets may be branding. If a major sports news network, for instance, wanted to make sure that fans get their updates from their channel and not from the competition, they could hire a developer from the community to write an Opera widget which would be accessible from computers and mobile phones. Content providers look to gain mindshare wherever they can get it, and Goldman says providing useful widgets is a good place to start. He notes that at least one company has already seen fit to do this: "We're seeing great interest from data providers in Opera widgets as a means to distributing data to their clients. AccuWeather, for example, recently added to all of its weather pages links to download the touchtheSky Opera weather widget." TouchtheSky is the winner of the UK national prize.

Goldman insists that the matter is not an issue of closed versus open source, but rather one of closed versus open standards. By implementing some sort of proprietary widget format that protects intellectual property of developers, the company would limit the extent to which other browsers could support Opera widgets. Instead, Opera has taken precisely the opposite approach, encouraging other browsers to use the format by submitting it to the W3C for standardization.

Goldman says, "Widget developers would benefit more if widgets were based on open standards, since their widgets wouldn't be locked into any particular platform or OS. With an open standard for widgets, developers could develop widgets for all platforms and devices." At the same time, however, the W3C Widget 1.0 standard review page contains the sentence, "It has been suggested that the widget should have some means of preventing access to the content of it."

While most free software developers would support a commitment to open standards, some in the Opera community have expressed the desire to sell their widgets as proprietary, closed source software. Others are fine with leaving widget source code open and available, or offering developers a choice. Campos says, "I don't mind if anyone can get the source. I think that a open source widget is better for the Opera community, so I wouldn't prefer to close the sources." Campos acknowledges the value of the open source approach and is content with the Widget World Cup competition, but is realistic about other possibilities: "I like very much to make widgets, but I have a daughter and a wife and a lot of bills to pay. If I could sell my widgets and receive sufficient money to live, I would love it."

Adamczyk says, "I think it's better when most widgets are open source, but in my opinion there should be choice. A developers should be able to choose a format for his widget -- open or closed. I don't think it matters that much for the community of users; it's more important for the developers. Some people prefer open source and some other people prefer closed source."

Campos also supports choice. "Developers should be able to choose if they want to make a open or closed source widget. I think open widgets are better for the Opera community, but not necessarily for the widget developer. An example would be a widget with ads -- the developer could spend time and money to make a good widget, and add a little advertisement to have profit. If this widget is open source, it very easy for someone to make a new 'ad-free' version of that widget. I don't defend open or closed source, I just defend the right of choice of a developer to make a widget closed or open."

Campos has personally benefited from the ideals and implementation of the free software methodology. The widget that won him €1,000 borrows a concept he discovered while analyzing the source of another widget called htmlEditor. From it, "I discovered how to display Web pages as you type your source."

The ease of widget development will likely attract inexperienced developers. The first code Adamczyk ever released under an open source license, for instance, was some of his own widgets, released under a BSD license. "Creating an Opera widget," Goldman says, "is a very simple process if you already know HTML, JavaScript, and CSS. It's easy enough to allow newbie developers to create widgets themselves."

It may not cause a revolution, but if new programmers can make simple applications in an environment where open source is the norm, not a novelty, perhaps they will recognize some benefit in free software.

Category:

  • Web Development
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