The World of Desktop Widgets – Part 1

Posted: October 13th, 2008 | Author: | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

Back in 2003 when I still had enough time to follow up on the latest Linux applications, there was a new tool (or toolkit) developed called Karamba. It aimed to bring desktop widget functionality to KDE on Linux. Soon there was a new application called Superkaramba that improved on the old application and got a lot of attention. Curious as I was, I downloaded it, compiled it and was soon running it on my desktop.

Looks like the idea of using desktop widgets was catching on at the time. At the same time there was an application called Konfabulator (which got bought out by Yahoo and is now called Yahoo! Widgets). When I started working and was forced back on Windows, I started using konfabulator and liked it quite a lot. At around the same time Mac OS X had an application called Dashboard, which did all the things the other two were aiming for. With the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft entered the field and released native widgets called Gadgets. The final development – as far as my exposure lets me believe – was the development of Plasma in the new version KDE. There is also one other player in this game that introduced its own version of widgets. Google created the desktop search back in 2004, and soon after added a sidebar with gadgets and other plugins. As one would guess, these gadgets performed the same general tasks as all the other flavours and aimed to provide the same solutions.

I this article I will try and review each of these implementations both from a user perspective. Part 2 will carry reviews from a developer’s point of view.


This was my first introduction to desktop widgets, and I started using them immediately. The general idea behind Superkaramba is that a set of widgets run on your desktop living adding a certain level of interactive and dynamic behaviour that doesn’t exist in desktop shortcuts. At the time (and it continues to this day), the main point of all the various widgets were mainly to reproduce GKrellM functionality. There are a large variety of system monitoring tools. However, some people have produced a few unique and useful widgets: Liquid Weather, TUX Bar, OS X Bar. The userbase of this application appears to be dictating a certain gravitation towards monitoring widgets and some music player control widgets. Finally, the performance is reasonable (although by no means quick) and the application does not tax the system too much. However, this mostly depends on the widgets running and a bad implementation may lead to high CPU load issues!

Yahoo! Widgets

Yahoo! Widgets running on OS X
Konfabulator was another early player in the game. This small company released a very robust application for Windows that was capable of displaying the widgets in two modes: desktop mode, and dashboard mode. The desktop mode is the same idea as that behind Superkaramba where the widget would live on a layer separate from desktop icons, but not in the front like normal applications. The second mode which can be quite useful is where some widgets can be viewable only in a dashboard. The simple fact that Konfabulator was a Windows application (although initially released for the Mac OS X) meant a larger userbase and hence a vary wide range of widgets were created. Soon there were widgets from Sys Monitor to various to-do lists and even YouTube video players. From a performance point of view the Yahoo! Widget Engine is very lightweight and runs quite smoothly. Newer versions have added a dock capability and a few of the best widgets come pre-packaged.

KDE Plasma

KDE4 Plasma
KDE 4 is a major rework of the original “K Desktop Environment” used on Linux. This new version brings a design philosophy that enables various applications that are commonly run on a desktop to interact on a very fundamental level thus reducing overhead and producing a more uniform look and feel. So, what does that mean? It means that widgets or plasmoids native to KDE4 can be written thus replacing Superkaramba functionality along with other things on the desktop. The only problem at the moment is that KDE4 is not at a stage where it is widely adopted by the linux community. However, my personal experiences with KDE4 and Plasma has been very good and I am very impressed with the direction of this project.

Kde4.2 Plasma overview on YouTube

Google Desktop Gadgets

Google Desktop Gadgets
Google came into the widgets scene right after introducing its Desktop search tool. The Gadgets provide more or less the same functionality as those provided by Yahoo! Widgets and others. The main differentiators in this case are the Google infrastructure, and the ubiquity of the desktop search tool which will bring with it the Gadgets. I have not spent much time with the Google Gadgets, simply because I found Yahoo! Widgets less intrusive. However, the Google Gadgets have the power to use the data indexed by its desktop search tool and present the user with more customized data. Performance is not an issue here either and once again the variety of platforms has lead to a sizable collection of gadgets.


OS X Dashboard
Back in 2005 when Apple released Tiger they also released Dashboard. The functionality was similar to that of the aforementioned Konfabulator although they had done away with the desktop-level widgets. All widgets were visible only at the dashboard level. Apple provided a nice range of widgets out-of-the-box and the adoption of this tool has lead to a large number of widgets. The fact that this application comes packaged with the operating system has lead to larger market-wide adoption of the widget philosophy. The performance is excellent and the integration into the OS is nearly flawless.

Vista Gadgets

Vista Sidebar
Microsoft has come up with their own implementation of a widget engine for their Vista operating system. Unfortunately I do not have access to a system to write a review for it, but wikipedia has a good review posted here.

Final Words

It seems that the paradigm of the computer desktop is changing and various major players have come to accept this change by bringing out their interpretation of the desktop widget. The users can now use their desktops as an interactive surface in contrast to the passive file-folder view of the past decade or so.

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