Widget terminology often confuses newcomers. The variance of terms — widget, gadget, module, badge, button, etc. — can create impressions of a fragmented industry in its early days, not able to agree on anything as simple as a name. In this post I will walk you through the etymology and nomenclature of widgets and its variances. I interpret each term as a separate meaning, not a synonym, depending on the structure and use of widget content.
A “widget” is a generic term for a manufactured object. The word first occurs in the 1924 Broadway play Beggar on Horseback as an object with no real value, yet mass produced for common usage. The main character is torn between his poor living as an artist creating things he enjoys, or a job in a factory creating meaningless “widgets.” In economics we reference a widget as a generic object that should not distract from the example at hand. We reference Bob’s Widget Shop instead of Bob’s Donut Shop to focus on the growth numbers, optimum pricing, and other aspects of economics where the details of a donut are irrelevant.
The term “widget” is also used to describe the basic building blocks of a desktop operating system’s graphical user interface. Desktop application developers can take advantage of standard user interface libraries such as a menu, buttons, or display pane. Ralph Swick and Mark Ackerman of MIT chose this word for the X Window System in 1988. The term is still used today in the desktop development space to describe building new user interfaces.
We chose this term since all other common terms were overloaded with inappropriate connotations. We offer the observation to the skeptical, however, that the principal realization of a widget is its associated X window and the common initial letter is not un-useful.
The familiar idea of a desktop building block is easily extended to the world of Konfabulator “widgets.” Associating the name of Konfabulator’s customizable objects with the small configuration tools of the OS helped desktop developers more quickly grasp the new concept blending Web and desktop technologies.
Apple owns the trademark on the term “web widget” for “software for use in creating other Internet and web-based software.” Large international corporations such as Microsoft and Google likely conducted a trademark search and stayed away from the term for their web products, instead opting to use “gadget.”
A web badge is the bumper sticker of the Internet. Web badges are small pieces of flair placed in a site’s sidebar or footer to display an affiliation with a group or cause. Over the years we have seen small images promoting a site’s XHTML or CSS compliance, an author’s support for a political candidate, or fans of the Chicago Bears or Apple computers proudly displaying their support.
Dynamic web badges might pull in the total money raised for a campaign or display the score from last night’s Cubs game to improve its usefulness and impact.
A web button is a small piece of interactive content placed on a web page. Web buttons prompt the user to take action by adding the page to their bookmarks, adding a vote on a social news site, or viewing related content. The most popular web buttons such as Digg and del.icio.us integrate live contextual data with a call to action.
Widget plugins are integrated pieces of a site’s publishing experience. Plugins operate on an author’s server and can take full advantage of server-side scripting, template integrations, and site-wide publishing preferences. Popular blogging tools Drupal, Movable Type, and WordPress support sidebar widgets powered by plugins.
Widgets come in many shapes, sizes, and functions and luckily there are specific terms to describe each. Desktop widgets, personal homepage modules, webpages pages, blog post buttons, blog sidebar widgets and plugins all describe what we generically call widgets.