What IT needs to know about widgets

Canadian enterprises with internal Web developers should consider shifting at least part of their workloads towards creating widgets that create closer relationships with customers and boost e-commerce sales, panellists told an audience of marketers on Thursday.

Many software vendors, including Google and SAP, have begun showing interest in widgets, portable chunks of code that can be used like a plug-in to access data services over the Internet. According to statistics quoted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada, which hosted a conference on digital marketing called Interactive to the Max, widgets have already reached 20 per cent of all Web users worldwide. As a result, early adopters such as Paramount Pictures, Wal-mart and Sears have started deploying widgets of their own.

Carrie Lysenko, manager of online applications at the Weather Network, said her organization began experimenting with widgets in 2004, starting with one called the Weather Eye which delivers real-time updates to a user’s system taskbar. Since then the broadcaster has created eight other widgets, which deliver information serving a variety of needs. The widgets have attracted 1.6 million Canadian users so far, she said.

“We were fortunate, being a broadcaster, that we had a lot of in-house resources,” said Lysenko. “At this point, though, there’s enough literature out there that would allow someone – well, maybe not me, but someone with some Web development knowledge – to build these widgets fairly easily. The programming has really become pretty basic.”

A bigger challenge, Lysenko admitted, is keeping up with all the existing and emerging platforms on which widgets can be deployed. Right now, for example, the Weather Network is in the process of creating widgets for social networking sites such as Facebook.

Marketers may be turning to their development staff to create widgets because they see them as both a means of brand extension and brand engagement. Chantelle Rossi, an account manager with Google Canada, said the search engine giant prefers to call such applets “gadgets” and does not allow them to be downloaded to a desktop but onto other Web pages. In many businesses, however, the benefits come not only through increased advertising potential but the ability to connect with customers more directly.

“Even in a B2B environment, if you have a huge following – if you were a software company, for example – you can push updates on an ongoing basis. You can tell them there’s a new bookkeeping feature (on your product), or whatever,” she said. “You don’t have to keep pushing them to your site.”

Scott Howlett, principal at Toronto-based consulting firm iMason Inc., said most companies concentrate on ad-supported or sponsored widgets but the greater potential may like in encouraging the development community to create their own widgets, or contribute their own content to a widget.

“The technology behind the scenes is really straightforward,” he said. “If you get started on something, you’re going to see results.”

That said, Howlett admitted some enterprises have resisted widgets because they fear the security implications of allowing users to download information. That’s why he suggested companies start experimenting with information that’s already in the public domain – product information or pricing for example.

Lysenko said companies are also becoming a lot more educated about how widgets work and the amount of risk involved both to the business and the consumers. “The iPod and iTunes really helped us,” she said. “People started to realize what downloading was, and that it didn’t have to be scary.”

Howlett said that eventually there could be greater opportunity for what he called “private data scenarios” on widgets. He said 60 per cent of all online banking transactions, for instance, occur on the 15 and 31 of the month, which is when people check to see that they got paid. A widget could send them an alert on that information instead.

Software firms such as Adobe and Microsoft have been developing tools to create rich Internet applications (RIAs), which allow users to move data online or offline as they wish. Widgets allow the same kind of thing, Lysenko said.

“It’s really just a way to stay on their screen and be with that customer, even when they’re not browsing,” she said.

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