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Ina Fried

Staff Writer, CNET

Apple Computer is hoping the possibility of winning a free iPod will prompt developers to start writing widgets–small Mac programs that will run in the next version of Mac OS X.

The Mac maker has launched a contest for developers who create programs in Dashboard–a part of Tiger, the update to Mac OS X that will debut in the first half of next year. The idea behind Dashboard, as well as a similar third-party program called Konfabulator, is that computer users want easy access to small programs that do things like showing stock quotes or displaying photos.

Though Dashboard won’t be available until Tiger arrives, the company wants to jump-start development of the widgets that work with Dashboard. Apple is hoping that the prospect of creating widgets will appeal to more than just the usual crop of Apple developers, given that only standard Web site skills are needed.

“It’s really critical that we get this technology out to people beyond our traditional developer base,” said Ron Okamoto, vice president of Worldwide Developer Relations at Apple. “You are gong to see people who never thought about programming for the Mac.”

To enter the contest, and gain access to the Dashboard developer kit, would-be programmers must be members of Apple’s developer program at the select level or above. Entries must be submitted by Jan. 5.

In a new posting to its developer site, Apple outlines possibilities for several kinds of widgets–namely ones that retrieve information from the Web, ones that are self-contained applications and ones that link to full-fledged Mac programs. An example of the last category would be an iTunes miniplayer Apple has demonstrated.

In current versions of Mac OS X, there is a program called Sherlock that allows access to movie times, eBay listings and other information. Some of the same tasks could be handled by Widgets, said Chris Bourdon, Mac OS X product marketing manager.

“There certainly are, I think, some obvious overlaps between the two of them,” Bourdon said. “I suspect we will see some widgets that are built that have some similar functionality.”

Bourdon declined to comment on whether Sherlock will remain part of Mac OS X when Tiger ships. “Sherlock is a really great application. We’re going to see as things flesh out with Dashboard where that goes.”