Jeff Croft

I’m a product designer in Seattle, WA. I recently worked at Simply Measured, and previously co-founded Lendle.

Some of my past clients include Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and the University of Washington.

I’ve authored two books on web and interactive design and spoken at dozens of conferences around the world.

I’m currently accepting contract work and considering full-time opportunities.

Blog entry // 06.30.2004 // 1:31 PM // 4 Comments

On Rose/Konfabulator vs. Apple/Dashboard

The Mac world is up in a huff over Apple’s recent demo of “Dashboard,” a new widget system built into Mac OS X 10.4 “Tiger.” The commotion is all over Dashboard’s obvious inspiration: Konfabulator.

Konfabulator is a widget system, created by Arlo Rose and Perry Clarke, that’s been available for OS X since around early 2001. It features Javascript-based widgets that float above the desktop and allow constant access to functions such as iTunes control, weather, battery/CPU/network monitoring, etc. Also, there is a freely available SDK, allowing users to create their own widgets to do whatever they please. As Arlo puts it, “Konfabulator is whatever you want it to be.”

Dashboard is very similar. There are, however, a few core differences:

  • Dashboard’s widgets are not just Javascript-based. They use WebKit, which means they can render HTML, XHTML, CSS, Flash, QuickTime, etc. — anything Safari can do, so can Dashboard.
  • Dashboard is modal, whereas Konfab is non-modal. In layman’s terms, this means that Dashboard widgets are accessible by entering a special mode. Apple has implemented this mode as part of Exposé. To get to your widgets, you’ll hit a key combination or flick your mouse into a particular corner. In Konfabulator, widgets are always accessible — no need to enter a special mode.

The Konfabulator boys are understandably irked about their product being ripped-off, but they are taking it in stride — they don’t plan any legal action. You can read more of their thoughts in this interview, and on their website.

Many Mac-bigots are claiming that the idea of widgets are nothing new, and possibly dates all the way back to Desk Accessories in the original 1984 Mac OS. Personally, I don’t buy it. There have been many examples of Konfabulator/Dashboard style widgets in OSes over the years, but DAs were not one of them. DAs were simply apps that quit when you closed their window. That’s all. Period. They also were able to run at the same time as another app back in the pre-MultiFinder days. Realizing that the MultiFinder pretty much obsoleted DAs, Apple deprecated them back in System 7, replacing most of them with regular apps. So, Apple people — get over it. DAs were not widgets in the Konfabulator sense — period.

That having been said, there are plenty of pre-Konfab widget examples to been found. The first time I stumbled across these sorts of gagets was in XWindows on RedHat Linux 4. Many XWindow Window Managers included them, but I particularly remember WindowMaker being loaded with them. Of course, WindowMaker was based on the UI of NeXTStep, which everyone knows was the foundation for OS X.

Other examples of widgets that pre-date Konfabulator were in BeOS and OpenSTEP. Also, Microsoft’s Active Desktop is similar. Many of the items found in the Windows 98 and XP Plus! packs are similar. gDesklets for Gnome is similar. And the list goes on…

So, in the end, I don’t think the idea of widgets is anything Arlo Rose and the Konfabulator boys can lay claim to. However, their widget implementation had a particular look and feel, which has most certainly been copied by Apple. Is it illegal? Probably not. Is it a low blow? For sure.

Apple’s made quite a recent run of rolling items into the OS that have historically been the jurisdiction of third party developers. iPhoto, iTunes, FontBook, Sherlock, Cmd-Tab switching, and iChat AV are all examples of apps that upset third party developers when they came out. They’re also all apps that are essential to the Mac platform being so popular today.

So what’s Apple to do? I don’t know. But, in the case of such an obvious rip-off as Dashboard (or Sherlock), I believe they should look into buying out the developer, rather than just ripping them off. People give Microsoft a bunch of crap for doing this, but I personally think it’s a lot more ethical than just stealing ideas.

Apple, if you want to keep your greatest developers on your side, at least pay them off when you pillage their concepts.

Comments

  1. 001 // Brian Ford // 06.30.2004 // 6:04 PM

    I dunno… I can see your point… but there is also THIS:

    http://daringfireball.net/2004/0…

    I think he makes a pretty persuasive argument too.

  2. 002 // Jeff Croft // 06.30.2004 // 10:56 PM

    I’ve seen that. I read John Gruber’s site daily. He does make decent points, but I still don’t really agree. My problem isn’t so much with this particular incident (like I said, Arlo can’t really lay claim to the invention of widgets), but rather to the disturbing trend of Apple trying to knock off it’s own developers.

  3. 003 // John Gruber // 07.03.2004 // 12:04 PM

    If you read Daring Fireball, then you should know that Watson developer Dan Wood was twice offered a job on the Sherlock team at Apple — once immediately after Watson 1.0 shipped, and again after Sherlock 3 shipped — and he turned them down both times.

  4. 004 // Jeff Croft // 07.03.2004 // 1:12 PM

    John-

    I didn’t realize that, and it’s good to hear that Apple did offer him a job. I do read your site, and generally try to “keep up” with the Mac world (if a bit less than I used to), but I certainly don’t know everything. Maybe I’ve over-paranoid, but it just seems like every time a new version of OS X ships, there’s a whole new crop of developers pissed that Apple is encroaching on their territory. I just think hey need to be careful not to alienate some of their best developers, that’s all.

    Keep up the great work with Daring Fireball!

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