The Many Challenges of Widgets

Before you invest time and money in a widget strategy, you better know the challenges. This applies to VCs, Web Strategists, Developers, and even Social network companies

An Objective View
In this blog, I strive to provide a balanced viewpoint of both the benefits and challenges of a web strategy, it’s easy for us to become over-hyped and then fall right into the pit of over exuberance. (See other posts tagged Challenge)

I’m moderating quite a few panels with widget developers (last week at Stanford, next week at Graphing Social, and in a few weeks at Ad:Tech) so I’ll be using many of these challenges to hold the vendors to their claims.

First, a few parameters:
Update: This list of challenges mainly applies to widgets within Social Networks, although many of the challenges afflict mobile, desktop and blog widgets.

Widgets are ‘mini-applications’ that can be embedded on other containers (such as social networks like Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, LinkedIn, and whoever decides to join the movement) The thing is, desktop widgets have been around for some time, so this really isn’t anything new, but for the purpose of this post, I’m just going to keep those on social networks in scope.

In regards to terminology, I’m just going to use widgets as a blanket term to also include “applications” and “canvas pages” terms that developers user on Facebook’s F8 platform. I’ll clarify that on another post in the future.

The Many Challenges of Widgets:
Each of the following hurdles can be overcome, but first, let’s identify them.

Difficult to Monetize
First and foremost, this has been the biggest challenge. For some widget developers, the money has come from investors or VCs on Sand Hill road. Secondly, I’m hearing that the CPI plague (see below) is becoming more common, and then lastly, advertising is not an effective way to monetize in social networks (read this for more).

Immature Market
Widget developers are mostly experimental, they are throwing gangly Spaghetti, Pasta, Rigatoni, and Jeremici (I just made that up) against the wall to see what will stick. In most cases, most of the half cooked pasta falls down from low users adoption, leaving a sticky residue of messy profile pages.

Overcrowding profile page
Have you seen my profile page on Facebook? It’s a mess, and with so much noise, who can compete? With there being thousands of widgets, only a few can survive on my profile page (I know there is tabbed segmentation) but really, how many do we need?

Low Barriers to Entry
A challenge for every web market, is that there are few ways to differentiate, and it’s easy for a young Russian developer or a Stanford student, or a team of Chinese engineers to quickly get in the game.

Metrics and Analytics Inconsistencies
Hardly anyone is measuring the success of their widgets in the same way, do we measure on install, activity, views, traffic, or clicks? As a result, other than Appsaholic, there’s very few industry ways to measure success.

Sadly, I learned from a panel I managed that some of the most successful apps were the one that leaned on the social graph, no not the one that we all dream about, but in the context of email spam. Many containers are clamping down on this, as it’s best to preserve the user experience, but this could continue to be an issue.

Bastardization: Cost per Installation (CPI)
To me, this looks like one of the worst in our industry, to me, this is like ‘printing money’. Did you know some of the top developer companies sell to other developers the chance to let new widgets piggy back off successful ones by promoting them. The developer can then charge for cost per install.

Disposable and low value
Rodney Rumford first mentioned this term to me, he was describing that many widgets are simply not used more than once. These glamor widgets provide one time entertainment, or are used once and never reused –except for removing from ones profile page.

Recycled clones offer little uniqueness
Perhaps the worst plague is the “attack of the clones” in many cases, the code from widgets are created by one developer, stolen (I mean crowdsourced or collaborated) slightly modified or rebranded and then republished.

Low Utility
I’m trying to think of a widget that provides business utility, or one that improves my life other than casual communications or entertainment. Reminiscent of the web in the mid 90s, we’ve yet to see the business value.

Hard to build successfully
Specialized skill set are common among the developers, most traditional interactive firms, and most companies don’t have the skills or experience to create a widget. It’s a different game with a different mindset, the same strategies often don’t apply.

Multiple APIs strain developers
Most platforms or containers are offering their own API, although most are touting they are OpenSocial compliant (as I write this, OpenSocial is not public, it is but in beta but should be soon) yet we’ve got to wonder is it too late for there to be a common industry API if it’s already fragmented? I spoke to the Evangelist of MindKey last night and he suggested that each platform has unique APIs (like news feed APIs) that the other doesn’t share –it’s already fragmented.

Ever changing platform APIs requires attentive team
When I hosted the widget roundtable, it became very clear that the APIs on platforms are quickly changing, and sometimes without notice. For the agile developer company, they’ll be able to quickly morph with their full time resources, but for the Interactive Firm or corporate web team, they’ll likely be too slow.

Pricing may vary, lack of standards
I have the privilege of being one of the few people in the world that gets to talk to the widget developers and find out what they are charging. In many cases they don’t know what to charge (as they have strong technical skills, but are just ramping up on the business side, and they are undercharging) This will clean up this year, and we’ll start to see some benchmarks.

Poor User Experience
Dennis McDonald (via comments) suggests that the usability for widgets is often poor. With there being little standardization on the inteaction design, I’ll agree, he states: “It’s hard enough to keep track of multiple incoming data streams representing different people, sources, relationships, keywords, etc. When you try to cram too much though a widget you have a real usability problem because of the variety.”

Performance Issues
Pravda (via comments) suggests that some widgets have poor performance, and thereby causes a disrupted experience. Since widgets are hosted on third party servers, some laggards can hinder the rest of the social network experience, he states: “This is because they require additional HTTP request, and in some cases, this request delays the rest of the page. This is the reason that I am not using Meebo widget in my blog”

Lack of Brand Control
Len Kendall (via comments) suggests that some brands may be concerned where their sponsored widget may appear. In many traditional advertising deals, Coke will never want it’s advertisement near Pepsi, but with widgets, that’s unavoidable.

Add your own in comments
What other challenges of widgets did I miss? Please leave a comment and credit and link to you.

Caveat: While I’m highlighting the challenges, it doesn’t mean they can’t be overcome, and it most cases, the value is higher than the challenge. I’m just suggesting, we shouldn’t only look at the beautiful side, but set yourself up for success by knowing what you’re in store for.

I could write a solution or a fix for all of these challenges, but that’s a post for another time, or one I’d be happy to answer for clients.