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Operating Systems as Content Pushers

Call it the widget revolution. Mac OS X, Windows and Linux all have widgets for pulling in available content from small software houses and other sources around the Internet.

Although users can cull these free bits of data from elsewhere on the Web, the widget, thanks to Apple, has become a major element for the marketing associated with the operating system itself.

In many ways, promoting the use of these widgets is similar to car companies that run commercials about a new OnStar feature or satellite radio rather than about the power train or engineering innovations of the car itself.

Decreasing emphasis on the chassis of an operating system and focusing more on its widget-like features is indicative of the direction that OS vendors are going, say many analysts. The increasing homogenization among operating systems means that the future of the OS might just be about content.

Free Stuff

To extend the car analogy a bit further, one of the reasons that widgets are important is because operating systems have started to look very much alike. Much as most cars of a certain price range have basically the same power under the hood, so too have operating systems begun to have similar capabilities.

"When operating systems began integrating features that were in other systems, they were well on the road to becoming undifferentiated from each other," said Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research. "With widgets, they see an opportunity to win users by being unique in how free content is pulled into the system."

Because operating systems are beginning to look interchangeable, the free information represented by widgets and other content-distribution methods becomes a way for vendors to differentiate their systems from the competition.

Even if Linux, OS X and Windows can pull in the same kind of content through widgets, the way that content is graphically presented might just woo some users to switch from one system to another.

Apple Barrel

While both Windows and Linux systems offer widget-like content-pulling technologies through various third-party software providers, Apple has been keen to promote its built-in widgets and its other content offerings.

Rather than telling customers that they should upgrade to Tiger because they can take advantage of the stable, 64-bit Unix implementation, Apple has been pitching its Dashboard feature, which allows users to customize their widgets and download as many as they like right from the Apple site.

Currently, Apple offers about 1,000 widgets that can keep users up to date on everything from stock quotes to daily Tao wisdom. Recently, the company added an Ask Jeeves (Nasdaq: ASKJ - news) widget that lets users type in Web search questions from the Dashboard.

"Apple knows that even with this Intel chip switch, it's not going to go around talking about chips and what's inside the box," said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky. "The company builds on the differentiation it's already found from its software, which combines with the design of the machine."

That software includes widgets and dashboard elements, he added. "There's certainly a play for style with Apple, and they're going to use widgets for that," said Kusnetzky.

Content Push

Although systems now use these content-distribution strategies to be unique, the pace of systems technology likely will turn widgets into standard fare.

"To gain more users, an OS creator would have to generalize the system, which is exactly what's happening," said Jared Spool, principal of User Interface Engineering, a firm that has been testing online user experience for the last decade.

"It's a march toward mediocrity," he said, "but that's a decision these creators have to make if they want their systems to be more widely used."

In time, it is possible that this content-pushing strategy will meet a fate similar to other aspects of an operating system that once were avidly promoted. With operating systems looking similar and OS developers increasingly using free information as a draw, the age of the widget as differentiator might very well be short-lived.


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