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.

Collecta Search Widget

Real-time, along with mobile and a few other usual suspects, made many lists of things the web will be in 2010. It just became easier to put real-time search on your website, thanks to a new widget from Collecta. As ReadWriteJolie observed:

Widgets can be created around any search terms imaginable and customized in a number of ways. Results are automatically refreshed… and include results from blogs, microblogs, news feeds and photo sharing services.

This post doesn’t include an example of a Collecta widget, because the widget uses iframe, which isn’t allowed at WordPress.com. Collecta is not among the shortcodes available (at least, not among those documented). I can, however, link you to the relevant post at the Collecta blog (also hosted at WordPress.com).

I do provide an example of a Collecta widget over at WanderNote. That widget gives search results for Evernote, since WanderNote offers to turn Evernote notes into WordPress posts (and to do so free of charge, by the way).

Lala Playlist Widget Revisited

Lala continues to be the music site I use the most. I haven’t used its playlist feature much, but I did create a playlist this week, and I did embed it in the previous post.

I couldn’t remember how to embed a Lala playlist in WordPress,com, did a Google search, and then found that I myself had posted an example months ago. I didn’t post step-by-step instructions on how to do so, and I didn’t get round to posting such instructions, even when a commenter asked for them. I’m glad to say that the commenter, Chris Martins, took the initiative and posted instructions once he worked it out.

No Such Thing as a Free Sprout

About a year ago, I tried Sprout Builder. A sprout, in this context, is a Flash widget. SB cost nothing to try, and there was quite the buzz about it at the time. Two days ago, those of us with Sprout accounts got an email from Carnet Williams, the CEO.

Like many technology companies, we offered our service for free while we worked on our products, spoke with customers and developed our go-to-market strategy. Now that we have developed a solution worthy of creative professionals at the best agencies in the world, it is time for us to monetize. Starting in early February, we will begin charging for our service.

My reaction was one of surprise and interest, given the widespread use of the freemium model. I would have expected a very limited free version, with steps up from there in terms of price and service. Instead, as ReadWrite Marshall puts it: “Users will need to pay a minimum of $140 for a year of uptime for three widget projects.” He considers the lack of a free version a bad and sad thing, as do most of those who commented on his post.

Mashable Adam takes a more neutral tone. He quotes the SproutMail in full, and, based on a conversation with Carnet, “notes that the company will continue to offer free accounts to non-profits and academic institutions.” Again, comments on the post are mainly negative, with some feeling that they have been taken in by a bait and switch, with the year of free beta sprouts as the bait, and the recent email as the switch.

“The Case of the Charging Sprout” raises several questions, such as:

  • What is the deal for edu/nonprofit customers of SB? One of the quotes earlier in this post indicates that SB will be free for such customers, while the pricing FAQ states that “educators, design students and non-profits can use Sprout Builder at a discounted rate.”
  • Did SB give sufficient warning that the free sprout honeymoon would end?
  • WW37SD? What would 37signals do? 37s has done an impressive job with the freemium model, making the free version interesting enough and the $ versions premium enough. It’s interesting to compare the Basecamp pricing chart with the Sprout Builder chart. The former shows that there is a free version, the latter that there isn’t. Now, project management is certainly different from widget building, but I think that similar pricing considerations might apply.
  • How will SB’s decision work out? I don’t think that it will work well. A free version, however limited, encourages people to get started. While SB offers a 30-day free trial, that’s not the same thing as being able to maintain a sandbox over a period of time, so that one can, as time allows, keep going back to SB, assessing its fit for different projects that come up, and comparing it with competitors.

I’ll send a couple of emails soliciting answers to the first and third of these questions. But I hereby solicit your take on them, and comments are open…

Widget Strategist

I’ve owned the domain widgetstrategist.com for a couple of minutes now. I should provide some content. Since it’s currently more of an umbrella for my widget-related services than a service in its own right, it doesn’t yet need its own site, and so it points to this very post.

There are currently four services under the Widget Strategist umbrella. Two are currently available, and the other two will be available soon (i.e. before the end of 2008).

  • Wijard combines widget and business card (hence wijard) so that people can present the same image and information on their web sites and from the cards they give out in the real world. You can order your own wijard now, and that seems like a good idea, given the current offer of free shipping on the cards.
  • Springrolled is a service allowing bloggers to use widgets not readily available at their blogs. The demand for this service is illustrated by the demand for the Library Thing widget at WordPress.com. Indeed, providing a WordPress.com-compatible version of that widget is likely to be the first offering available from Springrolled.
  • Widgets are still rather new to many readers and writers of the web. Introducing and explaining widgets is an important part of Widget Strategist and of every service under the umbrella. Explaining widgets is also under the umbrella as a service in its own right. If widgets are a part of your business, you could use help explaining widgets to your customers or other stakeholders, and you like what you see of my word at Springrolled* and elsewhere, consider engaging my services.
  • Finally, you will soon be able to engage my services on widget strategy for your organization. I will not push this service until I am satisfied with my portfolio of posts, widgets, and other work illustrating my qualification for it (but please feel free to contact me about this service in the meantime).

*Examples of widget-explaining at Springrolled include:

By the way, please also contact me if you have anything to say about the compulsion to buy domains. Is there a name for this condition? Treatment? I’m glad I own widgetstategist.com, but feel that it should be the last domain I buy… at least this year.

Kung Fu Widgets and the Noodle Soup Web

One of the turning points in Kung Fu Panda comes in a conversation between Po, the panda who becomes the Dragon Warrior, and his father, Mr Ping, the goose who makes noodle soup. Ping tells Po something he should have told him a long time ago. No, it isn’t what you might assume from what I’ve just told you.

Anyway, just before that turning point for Po, Ping identifies a turning point for noodle soup: “the future of noodles is dice cut vegetables, no longer slices.” Meanwhile, on the web, the booming widget economy shows the promise of small content that can go anywhere.

Yes, I am using the metaphor of noodle soup for the web. And, in choosing that particular quote/link, I am casting Steve Rubel in the role of the old goose. I hope that Steve won’t be offended, especially given the importance of the Ping role, and the incredible resume of James Hong, who provides the voice in the movie.

If the web is noodle soup, then widgets are its dice-cut vegetables. Widgets are microchunks of content that can go anywhere on the web. If you want to see a one-minute movie illustrating widgets, I offer the biased recommendation of The Clearspring Chronicles, Volume 1. Clearspring is a particular widget platform, but not much in the video is really specific to that platform.

I’ve already offered an implicit recommendation for Kung Fu Panda, which just came out on DVD. I intend to make that recommendation explicit in a further post.

Meta-Widget: Clearspring Chronicles

This widget is:

[clearspring_widget title=”Widget” wid=”491f55764d73b3af” pid=”491f6c29e2ba5ff0″ width=”450″ height=”400″ domain=”widgets.clearspring.com”]

Goodreads Widget

WordPress.com, the host of this and millions of other blogs, does not allow Flash. That makes it impossible to use widgets such as the one that shows the books I’ve told Goodreads that I’m currently reading.

But is it really impossible? You never know until you try…

[clearspring_widget title=”Widget” wid=”491d034eec108fe6″ pid=”491d18bd94f24381″ width=”400″ height=”500″ domain=”widgets.clearspring.com”]

Clearspring Meta-Widget

I’ve been getting up to speed on Clearspring, the widget platform, mainly because it’s one of the services on which I’m building my about-to-be-launched startup Wijard. There are some speedbumps. One of the bumps is that there are three different types of Launchpad for a widget. A bigger bump is that the differences between aren’t explained in a way that’s clear to me.

The constructive thing to do, I decided, was to make a start on an explanation that would be clear to me, and to people who think like me. The appropriate thing to do was to put the explanation in a widget. So here’s the widget. If I make any changes, I need to make them only once, in the widget itself, rather than in the multiple posts in which I’ve included the explanation.

[clearspring_widget title=”Widget” wid=”490d1016dac1a889″ pid=”490dd8eff564d30b” width=”400″ height=”700″ domain=”widgets.clearspring.com”]