I hear these terms a lot now a days when talking about software, and just a year or so ago I would of thought a widget was a generic term for a product and a gadget was some new electronic device. Not anymore, these terms have quickly taken on new meaning and have a place in the world of delivering information. The bad thing about these terms is that everyone uses them a little different and there are already variations on the terms. So I am going to give you my take on these terms as I see if and how they apply to Business Intelligence (BI) & Enterprise Performance Management (EPM).
First let’s try and make things simple and assume that the terms Widget and Gadget are synonyms and understand that I usually use the term Gadget. So in this post when you see the word ‘gadget’ you can replace it with ‘widget’ in your head if you so desire. My simple explanation for why there are two terms is because more than one company decided to use these ‘things’ and they have decided to differentiate. Short explanation Apple used the term ‘Widgets’ so Microsoft decided to use the term ‘Gadgets’. So that brings us to the key players in the space, I am sure there are more but I see four key players on the consumer side of things.
These companies all have gadgets and the frameworks that run them but many of them have different variations. These variations fall into three general categories. Desktop, web, and mobile with each of the above companies playing in one or all of the three categories. Even with all of these variations I think I can sum up in general what the purpose of these things are:
Gadgets (or Widgets) are mini applications that expose key content (bits of data) or features generally from a larger (full) application and they deliver these features or data in a simple and visually pleasing manner.
Data (Weather) – The larger application is your weather person or weather.com, these people and sites have lots of great data points but all I really care about is current conditions and tomorrows conditions. I really don’t have a desire to understand how isobars or barometric pressure impacts the weather. Thus a gadget.
You can apply this concept to almost any feature you use most often or data you look at on a regular basis. The variations of desktop, web or mobile do not really matter the definition holds in any case.
Feature (Play Music) – The larger applications are iTunes, WMP, Zune, Songbird, Music Match and many others, these are cool full applications packed with rich features but I just want to play a song or playlist most of the time. Thus the gadget.
Now that we know what gadgets are lets think about if we need this new application class in our life. Here I think the answer is simple to arrive at. Just ask yourself if you have ever opened a program for a single feature or piece of information? If yes then explore the possibility that others are doing it. I doubt that very many people can say no to this question. I used to do it every morning before going on my runs. I would go to weather.com and look up the forecast for my zip code and filter through all the other features to get the temp so I could decide to how to dress for the run. Now I just glance at the gadget and I can tell if I need a hat or not.
So now we know what they are and we think that they have at least some utility but can we apply these concepts to BI and EPM? This is the very question among others we had to answer when we were creating Smart Space. We came to the conclusion that BI and EPM companies where building products and adding features based on the needs of their most active users. This makes for really good, feature rich applications that some user may find offer too much. So we starting playing with BI and EPM concepts and applying them to gadgets and it worked. Here is an example:
Reporting – Over the years we have found that many users look at the same reports over and over again. Maybe it is the monthly closing process and there is a ‘book’ of reports the accounting department reviews, or a sales representative is looking at pipeline data every day. This is the feature. The larger application would be the BI tool used to present this data or reports like Oracle Answers, Financial Reporting, or Publisher. So why not let the user pick the reports or report pieces that they feel are most useful for their tasks and have them always open and ready for them. Thus a gadget.
Smart Space Smart Book Gadget:
Because the concept was so easily applied we decided to make gadgets one of the many key features in Smart Space. The gadgets in Smart Space are complemented by a bunch of other great features that make the gadgets easy to use and lend to the overall user experience.
With Smart Space gadgets we decided to not use an existing gadget framework or engine for a number of reasons. Above I used the word ‘consumer’ when I talking about existing gadget frameworks or engines and this is because to date they have been focused on the mass market and have not applied the concept to businesses or business applications. For example they have lots of gadgets for weather, stock, fantasy football, cpu meters, and even countdown to the OC. The point is that these are great, I use them, my kids have used them, but they have not crossed over to business application and the needs of business. These special needs are what differentiates Smart Space gadgets from consumer gadgets. Some of the key needs are as follows.
Gadgets are just one part of the overall user experience and there are many other features needed to enhance or complement the gadgets. For example Smart Space has a top notch Windows shell integration that allows user to easily add BI and EPM content to their gadgets. This shell integration presents application content in an enterprise repository as if it were a flash drive. Consumer frameworks do not offer these features.
Deployment and control came up as a major issue and we spoke with customers. IT organizations managing a rollout of BI application do not want their users to just go and download gadgets. Also IT wants control over who develops the gadgets that the users can install. Administrators also told us that they need this framework to be able to install on restricted user desktops. With the consumer frameworks the control and deployment differences were show stoppers. Smart Space allows administrators to publish gadgets to a ‘gadget store’ for user to select from and the users can download and install the client and new gadgets with no administrative rights.
So in summary, whatever you call it, gadgets or widgets they are a key part of computing for the consumer space and this trend will continue to move into the business space. I challenge everyone to share thoughts and ideas on how you would apply these concepts to a business application.