Neither Google Nor Apple Invented Widgets

image credit: ars technicha

By Chand Bellur

July 4, 2020 at 3:06 p.m. PT

  • Apple’s OS X operating system for the Macintosh was the first consumer-oriented operating system with widgets back in 2003.
  • Apple launched its own widget engine in OS X Lion (2005) based on Konfabulator, the product of third party developers.
  • The first Android smartphone didn’t exist until 2008.
  • The Android mobile operating system, developed by Google, was created by software engineers using Mac OS X computers featuring widgets.

What’s a Widget?

Widgets are small apps arranged on a desktop or home screen for easy access. For example, a stock widget allows users to quickly check quotes without launching an app. Frequently accessed information works well in widget format. Weather, stock quotes, news, flight information and other simple tasks work well as widgets.

Widgets differ from apps in that they don’t exist within a standard window. Widgets often have irregular borders and take on non-rectangular shapes, unlike apps. After all, one can resize app windows to small sizes and position them on the desktop. That’s not really a widget. 

Widgets also tend to always stay on top, unlike application windows, which are easily covered by other apps. Either that or they’re affixed to some dashboard or panel, to avoid UI collision with regular apps. Although some app windows, such as mini music players, can be configured to always stay on top, this is the default behavior for most widgets.

Neither Apple nor Google invented widgets. The technology first came to light at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on a more academic POSIX-compatible operating system. Mainstream consumers never adopted this operating system.

The first consumer-oriented operating system with widgets was Mac OS X. Two independent developers created a widget engine for OS X known as Konfabulator in 2003. Apple “Sherlocked” Konfabulator, releasing its own widget engine in OS X Tiger. This version of OS X shipped back in 2005; however, Mac users have had widgets for years. Many of us, including me, don’t care that much about widgets.

Mac users had widgets five years before the first Android device even existed. Five years is an eternity in the tech world. It’s amazing how many people believe Android was the first OS with widgets, but that may be because most people don’t use a Mac. It may also be because when you search Google, they claim Android was the first operating system with widgets. That’s not even close to true, as Android borrowed widgets from the Mac five years after debuting Apple’s flagship operating system.

This is a misleading search result. The article by The Verge tells the truth, however, Google’s search results seem to imply that Android was the first operating system with widgets. This may be a problem with a search algorithm or it could be anti-competitive practices. In either event, it’s incorrect and misleading.

Most Google engineers use Macs. It’s highly probable that they copied the technology which they saw every day on their Macintosh computers, used to develop Android.

Consumers Don’t Care About Widgets

If you read tech news and the corresponding comments, you’ll experience many angry people these days. Just like with most of our leaders, our media plays divide and conquer. Provocative stories provide much-needed clickbait, but more importantly, sew the seeds of division.

Comments and engagement emanate from this artificially generated discord. A divisive tech news article can create hundreds of angry comments. These flame wars help poorly-written, fraudulent tech news articles rise to the top of search results.

For the record, I think both iOS and Android are deeply flawed operating systems. Competition has turned these systems into overly complicated Rube Goldberg machines for Millenials. Fundamentals, such as working with text, are still profoundly flawed; however, every cute social media trend makes its way into the next release. Of course, narcissists need better cameras, so they can take even more heavily altered selfies to post on social media.

Smartphones have small screens, and on iOS, apps launch very quickly. Being the first company to launch a consumer-oriented operating system with widgets, Apple was well aware they existed. They also realized OS X customers weren’t keen on the tiny applets. Market research indicated that consumers didn’t care about widgets. They make some sense on a system with a large screen, such as a desktop or notebook computer. Apps are already small on smartphones. Most consumers weren’t interested in running even smaller applets.

Apple correctly concluded that widgets were not a priority for iOS. Instead, the company kept the home screen lean and clean, focusing on high-performance infrastructure such as Metal and advanced security features like Touch ID and Face ID. Most iPhone users never clamored for widgets, and Apple correctly read the room and focused on features that consumers, particularly Millenials, wanted.

iOS 14 Copies OS X, Not Android

iOS 14 introduces a radical new change to the Home screen. Although widgets made their way into iOS 7 a long time ago, Apple gradually expanded on their functionality. It’s the Apple way. They take a technology from one operating system, such as widgets in OS X, and add it to another, evolving it over time.

With greater freedom for positioning more intelligent widgets, iOS 14 has garnered the ire of many Android fanboys. “They’re copying Android again!”. No, they’re not. Apple is copying Arlo Rose and Perry Clarke, who developed Konfabulator, a widget engine, for Mac OS X 17 years ago. Of course, if you hate Apple, never owned a Mac, and feed on anti-Apple propaganda, you won’t believe this.

This isn’t the only time Apple has copied themselves, only to take the blame of copying others. Windows 10 relentlessly ripped off OS X features, such as Mission Control. Many Windows users still believe that Apple stole those features from Microsoft, because they’ve never used a Mac, and they hate Apple.

Hatred has no place in technology. It’s hard to believe so many people have such strong feelings about Apple and Google. This is an unfortunate consequence of a media that divides the public for its own benefit. The ensuing flame wars boost engagement and promote the trashiest tech articles. Participants often waste time on their employers’ dime, spewing forth vitriol about one tech company or the other.

Tech companies only care about profits. Google is no better than Apple, and vice versa. Nonetheless, fanboys cozy up to their favorite, heartless corporation after paying a ridiculous markup on a device that costs virtually nothing to manufacture.

Widgets were around long before Android. The Apple ecosystem was the first consumer-oriented tech platform to support widgets. That’s a fact. Google’s developers, most of whom use Macs, were likely influenced by OS X widgets. The reality is, Google copied Apple. Apple copied two third-party developers who got the idea from an MIT POSIX-compliant operating system. Both companies copied widgets, but Google was late to the game.

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