Widgets and the Web's Amputation Ward

TechCrunch has a thing,or a place, called the Deadpool. It’s where social media companies go when they shut down. A look at TechCrunch posts tagged deadpool shows two arrivals so far this year: EventVue, and Yahoo’s Shopping API.

I’d say that these two closings are rather different things. Although each sees the end of a web service, only one sees the end of a company. EventVue is no more, while Yahoo lives on to… well, probably to close more services, among other things.

Yahoo shutting down an API is more like an amputation than a death. Amputations may be gruesome, but the patient is still alive, and may be in better health after the operation.

I want to focus on a couple of recent amputations, each at and by a different widget company. One of the companies is Sprout, which I seem to be moved to cover around this time every year. Two years ago, widgets were hot, and Sprout particularly hot and fresh, drawing quotes such as “SproutBuilder is going to explode the world of widgets on the web.”

Sprout Builder was launched as a freemium service. A year later, in January 2009, the free part (almost) went away. Now the Sprout Builder subscription service is now more. This was pointed out in a comment on this blog by Sumit Chachra (who I find to be the CTO of Tivix, a social media platform for nonprofits).

Sprout Builder is an example of the Amputation Ward, rather than to the Deadpool, because Sprout the Company still exists. What is Sprout now? Its home page answers that question as follows. “Sprout technology allows brands to engage their audiences across the social graph.” I won’t dig into what that actually means – at least not right now.

The current post is more about the amputation of Sprout Builder. Sprout’s blog post, which was published yesterday (i.e. on a US holiday), refers to a “service transition.”

One of the toughest decisions that a start-up faces is where to focus its efforts and resources. Sprout Builder was our first product and has always been near and dear to our hearts. More importantly, we value the customers who have gotten us to where we are today. However, we have made the hard decision to shut down the Sprout Builder subscription service to focus on our enterprise product lines. The only service level that we will continue to offer for Sprout Builder is geared towards enterprise customers. The cost is $2999 a year.

There hasn’t been a lot of coverage of the amputation yet. But a post by Heather Gardner-Madras has already drawn a few comments, all to say the least disappointed with the impending disappearance of sprouts by subscription.

Clearspring is the other service-amputating widget company. Clearspring blogged the news under the title: AddThis, our universal sharing platform. The first half of the post is indeed about AddThis, which Clearspring acquired in 2008. Then:

As AddThis now supports widget sharing, today we’re also announcing our plans to deprecate our original Clearspring Launchpad platform in April of 2010. After that point, the original Launchpad widget-sharing platform will no longer be available and AddThis will be our one sharing platform. Widgets will continue to run until the beginning of 2011. All the while, we will continue to improve the ability of AddThis to share embeddable content…

For long-time Launchpad users, we realize that there are some steps required to transition… We’ve put together comprehensive documentation to help you move from Launchpad to AddThis. We’ve also setup an area on our forum.

Some of the reaction to the deprecation/amputation is on the forum. I won’t link there, since it requires login. A post at Widgetmatic states that those using the Launchpad platform have some transition work, or some broken web pages, ahead of them.

Let’s take a look at some of the differences and similarities between these two amputations. The obvious similarity is that each involves a company that used to be in the widget business, and now downplays the term widget. Sprout seems to have purged the very term from its system. Clearspring is amputating its “widget platform” to focus on its “sharing platform.” I’d say that the idea of a widget, in the sense of a chunk of code that can be embedded on web sites, is alive and well, but that the term has fallen from favor.

The main difference between the amputations relates to market segments. Sprout is cutting off its smaller customers, in order to concentrate on enterprise clients. Clearspring seems to want to keep its customers, and to transition them to its favored platform.

Some Clearspring users will indeed transition to AddThis. Some will transition to a platform offered by a different provider, perhaps reasoning that Clearspring has pulled one platform from under them and might pull another. Yet other Clearspring users will simply let their widgets die on deprecation day.

I come into the last of these groups. I got very excited when I found that it was possible to use Clearspring widgets at WordPress.com, an environment hostile to many widgets. I’m inclined to be relieved that my excitement died down, and that I didn’t get heavily into developing Clearspring widgets for others to use at WordPress.com.

So that was a first visit to the web’s amputation ward. I hope that it wasn’t too gruesome. I also hope that it illustrates the difference between the amputation ward and the deadpool.

5 thoughts on “Widgets and the Web's Amputation Ward”

  1. Andrew, it’s great to hear from you. Interesting post.

    For us as a company, it was never just about widgets and was always about making it easy for anyone to share anything anywhere. Widgets was just the first part of the problem that we tackled. We’re really excited about where we’re going with the AddThis platform and making it easy to share anything (websites or widgets).

    We’ve already had some really cool implementations, from the Gorillaz and Team USA. (http://addthis.com/blog/2010/02/09/what-do-the-gorillaz-and-team-usa-have-in-common/) We’re going to have even more to show off soon. 🙂

    About the term widget, yeah it’s a funny word. I define it, like you, as “a chunk of code that can be embedded on web sites.” But when a lot of people hear the term widget, they only think of the type of things that you put on your Apple Dashboard or iGoogle page. They don’t think of things like Flash video, which i’d define as a widget. So, as an industry, we’re going to have to find more efficient ways articulating that we want to make embeddable flash content shareable.

    Would love to hear your feedback on where we’re going and where we can improve. Feel free to drop me an e-mail – justin@clearspring.com

  2. Hey Andrew,

    I was one of the faithful ClearSpring adopters who based their whole widgetsharing strategy on their platform. Anyone could grab their home poker league and embed it on Facebook or their blog/site (see http://www.pokerdiy.com/add-poker-widgets.aspx). Then came this news.. clearly a decision by upper management based on their AddThis acquisition.

    A lot of us developers where very vocal about being royally shafted. But no one at Clearspring listened.

    So now there are 5 days left till my live widgets go dark and despite hours and hours of investigation the only thing that I can find that is vaguely close is Widgetbox (I have JS/HTML widgets). It has a lot less functionality and I can’t get it to work because they pass params in their URL. I have tried so many others but still no joy.

    Bottom line – even big companies can completely screw you over…

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