Big Data

Widgets - Revenge of the shiny things

In a world without widgets, would you start up separate applications for the weather, a dictionary, a screen ruler, a gmail peeker and an app that checks your favourite web comic everytime your machine boots up?

A milestone was passed this week: Opera announced it has a thousand widgets in its widgets.opera.com repository. Congratulations to the Opera community and specially the people who created the widgets; I'm sure that there is a dedicated group who enjoy them and look forward to trying out the latest widgets — I am not one of them.

The theory is sound, years ago I could not live without seeing gkrellm on every virtual desktop, regardless of window environment, be it kde, gnome, fluxbox or xfce. So wanting to have mini applications strewn over the desktop is something I can sympathise with — in theory.

It's the execution that I have problems with, and in most case it is the biggest bloatfest to be found on current desktops. If you happen to have a rather spartan amount of memory, the last thing you want to happen is for a Dashboard or Sidebar to claim whatever scarce resources remain.

With OS X Tiger and Windows Vista, the first optimisation I made when I noticed things were running slower than advertised was to disable Dashboard as much as I could or in Vista's case, turn off the Sidebar.

In a little unscientific experiment, I opened an empty Vista's Sidebar, added each of the default widgets and then removed them. The footprint began at around 4MB when empty, peaked at 31MB then would settle down to 23MB when the widgets were removed.

That's not too bad, except from time to time the CPU usage would touch 90% for a few seconds. For something that is mostly static and ever-present, causing me to thrash every minute for about a second is just annoying.

As for Apple's Dashboard, I could basically lay waste to my performance and bring the machine to a grinding halt with a plethora of widgets. With an individual widget footprint averaging 15MB each, it's a good thing I have that extra RAM.

You may ask: "But hasn't the relative cheapness of hardware allowed us to produce things like Widgets?" And you would be right, except ask yourself this question. In a world without widgets, would you start up separate applications for the weather, a dictionary, a screen ruler, a gmail peeker and an app that checks your favourite web comic everytime your machine boots up? I would bet not.

How many times were those of us that were the designated "computer guy" of the family/neighbourhood called in to see why Aunt Betty's computer is "running slow" and the first thing you would do is remove all the useless startup items and clean out the systray?

If you take these items from the systray, make them semi-opaque and let them float over your desktop it's ok and we should accept it and move on? The new cheap hardware will handle it right?

Unfortunately no.

One of the worst things that a developer can do is assume that their resource problem is solvable with more hardware. If all developers acted in this way, then we would have completely bloated operating systems with features we don't need, never asked for and can see no use for.

But as I gaze out upon the vista of new releases, I can scarcely imagine such an atrocity.

About Chris Duckett

Some would say that it is a long way from software engineering to journalism, others would correctly argue that it is a mere 10 metres according to the floor plan.During his first five years with CBS Interactive, Chris started his journalistic advent...

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