Yahoo! Buys Konfabulator, a Combination That Makes Sense

At the end of July, Yahoo! and Konfabulator decided to unite. For those unfamiliar, this news may indicate large scale changes for search engine and web service integration on your desktop. Konfabulator software will grant Yahoo! power similar to, if not better than, Google’s infant APIs. The entire desktop may provide new real estate for search engine competition.

Yahoo! lately seems to have some holes burning in its pockets. In late March, Yahoo! bought Flikr, a photo sharing site. Flikr was a great addition to their week-old blogging service. In June, VOIP provider Dialpad was bought by Yahoo!. This caused some interesting speculation about Yahoo!’s future in the communications business. In early July, it was Oddpost that Yahoo! swallowed. Planning to improve their own aging email service, Oddpost will provide Yahoo! with their innovative approach to a web service.

Less than a month later, Yahoo! and Konfabulator have announced that they are now becoming one. For anyone unfamiliar, Konfabulator is a widget tool that resides on your desktop. Konfabulator runs small programs in your workspace that can do anything from act as an alarm clock to keep you updated on weather forecasts and stocks. They’re small enough that they stay out of your way, and checking them is much faster than opening a web browser.


Running a couple widgets

If you’ve seen the Dashboard for OS X, it’s just like that. Or really, Dashboard is just like Konfabulator, since Apple more or less borrowed the idea.

Konfabulator used to provide a trial and then require a $19.99 registration fee. The program was pretty well worth the money, being the most developed and established widget tool. It was solid enough that people who own Apples continued buying the program after Dashboard was released.

Now, however, Yahoo! has immediately made Konfabulator free. Yep, go to konfabulator.com (http://www.konfabulator.com/) and download a free copy to try out. As for the people who recently paid for a registration, Yahoo! is going to refund those who purchased version 2.0. Besides offering great products for free, there are other exciting things about this Yahoo! deal.

Let’s take a quick look at Konfabulator in action, which will then help to show how great combining these two companies will be.

Konfabulator basically runs little widgets that do whatever you want them to. They can monitor your computer resources or provide small applications, novelties, and games. When Konfabulator really shows its potential is when t uses these little programs to glean important information from the internet and leave it a click away for you.

While you may wonder how much use these toys are if they site on your desktop behind your open windows, consider that all the widgets can be pulled into visibility with one keystroke. By default, F8 makes all the tools pop up from behind, making all the information available in one click. They also stay in front of your other work until signaled to sink back. This is far faster than bothering to type a request into Google, even if you are at google.com with the cursor in the search field.

These few basic widgets monitoring the resources my computer is using. From left to right, the first is a clock. There are many styled clocks available. Yes, there is one sitting in my system tray too; this one just looks cooler. Next is the memory monitor, which is watching my RAM usage, virtual memory, and hard drive space respectively. There are more things you can add to this one. Last is the Uptime Monitor, telling me my computer has been on for 8 days and 8 hours.

There are other “system watchers” that keep an eye on everything from charting your processor usage, to watching your laptop’s battery strength, to the speed of your WiFi connection. These are just a very small sample.


Looks warm and sunny outside

This is my favorite web widget, and it gives you an idea of what the thing does. I like seeing a several-day forecast quickly, which this program keeps updating itself on every minute after I tell it my zip code. In the time I typed this, my bright sunny icon in the screenshot turned to a dark, evil cloud.

My main gripes right now are that the detailed Yahoo! weather page is three clicks away (and you have to minimize all windows to click the last link), and the page that comes up is nonspecific to you. Ideally, the Yahoo-bulator would store your Yahoo! ID and information, then provide a one click link to get more information on a customized page. I realize Yahoo! just acquired this toy though, so the company is probably working on these issues. I’ll be really interested to see greater Yahoo! integration.

Other web-scraping toys display information on traffic reports in busy cities (and traffic cameras), television schedules, RSS feed(s), recent lottery results, stock fluctuations, mosquito condition reports, the build process of the newest Alienware PC, and much more. The uses for pulling web information seem nearly endless.

And be warned: downloading new widgets can become an addiction.

Now it should be obvious why the deal looked so good to both companies. Yahoo! wanted a platform to tie its services to computer desktops to stay competitive. Since this program is already fairly matured (the oldest of its kind) and comes with a fairly large widget library and development base, it puts Yahoo! ahead of the competition. Also, Konfabulator probably wasn’t too expensive, with Dashboard available to a select group and with Google APIs and Windows Sidebar around the corner.

Konfabulator will see a vast improvement on its ability to “konfabulate” information. Instead of creatively scouring and stripping information from pages, Yahoo!’s wide array of web services will provide easy data to pull.

As Yahoo! tries to make all their applications more customizable and accessible using XML feeds, Konfabulator will be the tool to demonstrate and deliver Yahoo! services. The three employees of Konfabulator also sounded happy to keep their jobs; the small team will now be involved in widget development at Yahoo!. Their announcement showed a lot of excitement in the good coffee in Yahoo!’s break room.

Konfabulator widgets were already rather easy to make, basically being nothing more than a JavaScript and XML application. It should remain that way. However, Yahoo! services may become quite customizable. Besides making it easier for the widgets to harvest information, Yahoo! may make it easier to personalize the information they acquire. For example, take a news widget. From a Yahoo! account that lets you customize your data-feed preferences, you could customize Yahoo! to deliver you only news of given categories or about certain companies or people. Or maybe it could get specific enough that the widget would only provide news that matched your keyword criteria.

I’d really like to see customized services like this. Job hunters could download a HotJobs widget that displays the newest jobs that meet their personal criteria. Local search could be turned into a widget, one that remembers your location and caches all nearby maps and satellite images. Users could even send email from a widget without opening webmail in a browser. This is just a start.

Having a resident Yahoo! application could also improve basic search. It’s probably not beyond their imagination to design a widget that can analyze open documents to help see what you are searching for. Say a 10th grader is writing a report on the industrial revolution and has little more than an introduction written. The student enters “Industrial revolution” into the advanced search widget, and it lifts the text in the open report document and other open browser windows and PDFs (maybe even the kid’s chat window where he’s complaining about class) and uses those content to provide secondard keywords and semantics. The idea would push ahead semantic searching and targeted results, yet would need to work out harvesting information from only relevant windows.

The deal definitely puts Yahoo! ahead of the competition so far. It is expected to be more than a year before Microsoft will have a competing product, available in the next version of Windows. Even when that is released, Dashboard and Microsoft’s Sidebar require operating system upgrades; they are novelties added to feature lists at this point. They help sell operating systems and are not freely available for download and use. When most people have these installed on their systems already, then they’ll provide a lot of conflict for the Yahoo-bulator. But not yet.

Dashboard does have many fans already, but it is still fairly new to the Apple community. Not all OS X users have the new Tiger version of the operating system, the only one that includes Dashboard. The only ones who have Tiger are those who bought a brand new Mac since May and the techies who bought an upgrade package. Many Macs are even too old to run the newest OS X, and they continue using old OS X and OS 9. Plenty of Apple boxes out there could use a widget tool like Konfabulator, and those who have Tiger may appreciate having the choice between the two.

At the moment, Yahoo! is primarily competing with Google’s APIs (GAPIs). But still as a beta service, GAPIs is not a finished or stable product. It hasn’t really taken off yet either, though that’s probably just a matter of time. Konfabulator’s existing library of widgets give it an advantage until programmers start picking up on GAPIs.

The two companies do take somewhat different approaches, which is definitely good. The Konfabulator service seems more specialized to do exactly what I’ve been describing; it is a background program that runs little applets which constantly update information on your desktop. GAPIs provides Google search resources to programmers to integrate with programs.

Since Google lacks all those tons of web portal services that Yahoo! has, they had to use a different approach. Most of Google’s information is simply pruned from other sources. Google’s real focus is on expanding the technology and use of search data collection. So, the GAPIs are search oriented and try to bring the flexibility of search to other programs. They allow programs to use Google’s search and search services, like spelling and definitions.

One other difference is that Konfabulator uses JavaScript and XML to deliver widgets, but Google APIs allow programmers to use different languages suited for the task: Java, Perl, or VB.NET.

The newest dealings of these companies definitely show some promise for content delivery. It will be very interesting to see how Yahoo! uses Konfabulator, and to see how GAPIs differentiate from these other widget tools. Rumors are circulating that the Microsoft tool will be impressive, but it looks to be a long way off. If Yahoo! keeps working on Konfabulator (unlike how their messenger and other services sometimes stagnate) it could prove to be fair competition.

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