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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Why Yahoo! bought Pixoria

Acquiring Konfabulator lets Yahoo! feed live information directly to the desktop, bypassing the browser. A lot of people have been misled by Pixoria's use of the name 'widgets' for the tiny applets created and run using its Konfabulator tool (now in the wake of the acquisition to be renamed Yahoo! Widgets, which is sure to perpetuate the misconception). Just like the early days of JavaScript — which Konfabulator uses — most of the widgets available today are useless eye candy, offering functionality that appeals only to witless geeks. But put this technology together with people who understand the true power of client-side JavaScript — the designers of OddPost, for example, which Yahoo! acquired last summer — and you have the potential to create something of huge import.

Here are the ingredients that I believe give Yahoo! Widgets (formerly known as Konfabulator) such huge potential:

  • Desktop-based Javascript. At the heart of Yahoo! Widgets is a JavaScript interpreter that runs either on a Mac or on Windows. What this means is that someone can write a program in JavaScript that executes on the desktop without requiring a browser. That has a huge appeal to the hundreds of thousands of people who know at least something about how to code using JavaScript. It has enormous power in the hands of the small minority of them who really understand what's achievable with JavaScript, and can now achieve it without having to boot up a browser first.
  • XML-based parameterization The structure and basic parameters for a Yahoo! Widgets application are defined in an XML file, which is parsed on launching the application. This enforced separation of configuration information from coding is a big contributor to the inherent ease-of-use and flexibility of the architecture.
  • GET and POST methods Yahoo! Widgets defines a URL object that allows a widget to access information stored at a Web URL. The most obvious application (and there are already widgets that do this) is to put a self-updating RSS feed reader on the desktop. This alone justifies Yahoo!'s purchase, because imagine the value of being able to put a Yahoo! Widget on a user's desktop that constantly alerts them to new content appearing on the website. But one can also think of many other commercial applications for a number of REST-style web services besides RSS.
  • Ease of use. The creators of Konfabulator have made it really easy to understand and follow. Anyone with any familiarity with JavaScript and XML or HTML can sit down with their documentation and start producing widgets within a couple of hours.
  • Yahoo! Put that ease of use together with Yahoo!'s brand equity and market reach and you have a potential category killer. The biggest problem facing any desktop platform is getting enough of an installed base to cross over from an enthusiast following into mainstream adoption. Yahoo! can make that happen for its Widgets.

OK, so what could go wrong? Andrew Orlowski at The Register believes the acquisition is a dud. But in an intelligent analysis, eWeek's Peter Coffee spells out some of the opportunity that the Konfabulator technology opens out. Perhaps the most important element here is highlighted by Yahoo Developer Network VP Tony Schneider, whom Peter quotes thus: "You have to be very motivated" to write the scripts that access [web] services ... "What Konfabulator allows us to do is wrap those APIs and data sources into a form that anyone who knows what XML is, and can do a little bit of scripting, can deploy them on a desktop — it's really going to lower the bar."

The451's Demir Barlas makes another key point in his analysis of the acquisition: "Yahoo and Google penetrate businesses, particularly small businesses, from below, since their tools are typically adopted by individual users who retain Yahoo- and Google-based habits and preferences and carry them to work." No one should believe this acquisition only affects the consumer market — it will seep rapidly into businesses. Even if Yahoo! fails to realize the full potential, others will copy this concept until someone makes it work. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft try and build something like it into the Windows platform.

I have a feeling though that Yahoo! realizes exactly how powerful this technology could be. Imagine building AJAX capability into Yahoo! Widgets, so that a widget could directly query an XML source for specific data, exactly as browser-based AJAX applications like Google Suggest have been doing. To the chagrin of some users, Pixoria hasn't prioritized this in the past, but in a longstanding thread on this topic in the company's discussion forum, company founder Arlo Rose disclosed last month that, "SOAP and XML-RPC are on our roadmap. Can't tell you when they'll show up though... but hopefully sooner rather than later." The timing of that revelation, especially when put together with Tony Schneider's comments above, tells me that Yahoo! fully intends in due course to promote Widgets as a user-friendly desktop front-end to enterprise-class web services applications.

PS [added July 28]: Here's another interesting juxtaposition. In his eWeek article, Peter Coffee quotes Arlo Rose talking about extending Yahoo! Widgets beyond the PC and Mac: "The plan, said Rose, is to take advantage of the lightweight JavaScript-based model and 'to start extending that — to start reaching other technologies that have Web content delivered to them, whether that's your cell phone or your Tivo.'" Can it be purely coincidence that, the day after the Konfabulator deal became public, this press release came out? Motorola and Yahoo! Announce Plans to Bring Consumer Applications to the Mobile, Auto, and Home.

posted by Phil Wainewright 9:48 PM (GMT) | comments | link

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