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Cheat Sheet: Widgets

Yoda, Pac-Man and the price of a gallon of gas...
Widget. I thought that was something you got in a can of bitter. Where should I actually be looking?
You'd be better off looking on a Mac running Tiger OS.

And what should I be looking for?
A sort of transparent layer...

Well how can I look for it then?
I hadn't finished. As I said, there's a transparent layer - Apple's Dashboard - that will flick down or flick up from a user's desktop with a single mouse click. The layer is peppered with a number of customised, commonly-used mini-applications.

What sort of thing?
Think of it as a massive Mary Poppins handbag - you get all sorts of useful stuff there. The standard set-up that comes with Tiger offers a currency converter, world clock, share tracker, calendar, virtual Post-It Notes and a tiny iTunes, among others.

Most can be customised - changing a sticky note from pink to yellow, or setting the weather forecast to your home town, for example.

OK - I'm not a big fan of currency converting or seeing the time in Azerbaijan. Can I get any other widgets?
Indeed you can. Just as the iPod gave rise to its own 'ecosystem' of related products, so are widgets breeding outside of Cupertino. It's a deliberate move from Apple, which has a developer area for would-be widget makers and tempted code-jockeys to get involved with a win-an-iPod competition.

Apple's homepage links to a vast variety of such widgets, mostly from third-party providers. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous. One, designed for the US, points users to where to get the cheapest petrol in their local area; another provides a similar tool to locate your nearest Wi-Fi hotspot facility. Other widgets convert standard English text into Yoda-style speech or give a user a quick game of Pac-Man. Most are available as freeware.

Some 600 plus of the little creations are already in the wild. The growing number of Mac mini-apps will prompt Apple to create a Widget Manager facility in the next update to the Mac OS, 10.4.2, according to reports.

Why can't some scamp just trick a Mac user into downloading malware by writing a virus and packaging it up as 'cocktail recipes from Darth Vader' or something?
Well, they can. Someone's already had a crack at similar shenanigans - a blogger created a little blighter capable of hijacking a browser. It's just the type of thing, according to the blogger in question, that porn scammers would love.

Right. So what are Steve Jobs et al up to to stop this sort of malarkey?
So far, no-one's heard of a malicious widget at large but Tiger's being locked down already just in case. In the last Tiger update, widgets were blocked from auto-installing. 10.4.2 will also see the addition of a widget manager and a sort of containment facility for previewing a widget's behaviour before installing it.

About

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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