Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson delivered the keynote at Brooklyn’s Widget World Expo today, which makes sense — Fred has long been one of the widget world’s biggest boosters and users.
But Fred’s speech was much more bracing than some of the other industry blather you hear at these things. His talk (you can see the slides at the bottom of this post) was titled “Why Widget Is the Wrong Word and Why it Matters,” but it was really about the why widgets aren’t working today. You can see some of this discussed in his blog today, but this morning Fred also veered into some interesting tangents.
To Fred, the “problem with widgets” stems back to the original separation between content and the first widgets — ads. Google was smart to put its own contextual ad widgets (AdSense) in the sidebar of its searches, being clear to its users that its content (search results) were pure and separated from their ads (paid results).
However, as widgets started to be used to display other web content — Fred notes that his first widget was Flickr’s photostream widget, back in 2005 — they became “relegated to the sidebar and increasingly seen as ad units and increasingly ignored.”
But they shouldn’t be ignored, Fred argued. They should be integrated into the flow and experience of the page. Developers, he said, need to put more focus on widget user experience.
The best example Fred had of this sort of integration (and transformation, from sidebar to flow) is the Last.fm “latest songs” widget he used to have in the sidebar of his AVC blog. Now, Fred uses a Yahoo! Pipe called Last.fm Tumblr which takes the same data and injects it into his Tumblr site.
While injecting content into the stream of a webpage may be one answer to getting more “flow” and a better user experience with widgets, I had another suggestion: Context.
Contextualizing the display of widgets to the person (as MyBlogLog does), to the content (as AdSense does), or to behaviour (as no one does, though Tacoda could try to do) would also make the flow and integration of widgets that much tighter. Right? Fred agreed. That felt good.
Things got more interesting as Fred left his prepared notes and riffed a bit. Most telling to me: His repeated mentions of MyBlogLog, which I’m pretty sure he considers “the one that got away”: USV had an unexecuted agreement to invest in MyBlogLog right before they accepted a ~$10 million purchase from Yahoo!, where it has since disappointed everyone — especially Fred.
Also interesting was Fred’s description of his favourite widget: A sidebar widget concocted by a reader of his — Darren — which grabs music from his tumblog and puts it on the top right his AVC blog.
In the end, Fred was not necessarily calling for the “end of widgets” as much as he was delivering a wake up call for developers and publishers interested in the space. And, while the rest of the Widget World Expo included a lot of navel gazing about what seemed to be working for folks, Fred’s talk was a forward looking view of what must change.