A few new platforms are emerging, and they all have something in common: widgets. What does this mean for business as we know it, and how do widgets help customer reach grow?
The latest platforms to use widgets include Facebook and the iPhone. Both offer various amounts of third-party integration. Facebook offers a complete API (define) for developers to create add-on applications. So does Yahoo.The iPhone lets third-party developers create Web 2.0 application that run inside Apple's Safari browser. It's only a matter of time before actual third-party applications (or new Apple applications) emerge. It seems an obvious next step that the iTunes interface becomes a marketplace for add-on features for the iPhone. Apple calls these modules "widgets," Facebook calls them "applications." In this column, I'll use the terms interchangeably.
The following pointers will help your business succeed in a widget-centric landscape:
Widgets on a social network are different from those on a personal platform. This might seem obvious, but it's worth mentioning. The most successful applications on Facebook harness the social network. This includes music and video applications that allow users to see what others are interested in. Less successful are applications that are of value only to the profile holder. This is different from widgets on personal platforms, which center on the individual user's needs. Both can benefit from adding true e-commerce, however.
Widgets can help you return to your core business. If your company has grown organically over time, chances are your core business is some of the oldest technology on your site, because it was built first. Widgets allow you to revisit your core, and make compartmentalized user experience improvements you can test on a new platform. The success of these new user experiences can be studied and applied to the primary site. For example, you've been thinking there's a better way for users to shop your store's primary categories, but you've been unable to implement your vision because of the implications to the rest of the site. Now, you have an alternative.
Because widgets are standalone applications, they can be developed outside the realm of your main site and (gasp) by third-party developers, not internal IT staff. You can experiment with new ideas without worrying about the production queue. Widgets could represent a great way for clever product managers to beta test and prove out feature ideas that can later be incorporated into the primary sites.
B2B sites can use widgets, too. The B2B world doesn't have to be left out of widgets. The iPhone already comes with a stock ticker application, and I'd love to see companies like Fidelity come out with widgets that let me manage my various investments. These can be created as Web 2.0 widgets until Apple (hopefully) allows real application development on its platform. Companies like Citibank should hop on this bandwagon and create true mini ATM interfaces that allow users to perform various banking transactions via the iPhone. The iPhone interface would need to operate more like an ATM and less like a Web site (which is how existing online banking tools are designed).
Widgets can be viral and utilized in decentralized e-commerce. On the Facebook platform, the best applications are those with viral components. While most widgets currently aren't e-commerce centric, that will happen. Previously, I wrote about decentralizing e-commerce, and these applications are one more step in that direction. Shared lists of favorite movies and CDs are more interesting if commerce is enabled to let users buy those products immediately, without leaving the page. As these technologies mature, we'll see this functionality embedded in applications more often.
iTunes can become a widget marketplace. If Apple opens up the ability to develop applications for the iPhone, iTunes is positioned to become a marketplace for third-party applications. One can easily imagine a "Widget Store" that allows the easy purchase and download of third-party applications. With growing pressure for Apple to include more business-like applications in the iPhone (such as Exchange Server integration), one can easily imagine interfaces for Salesforce.com and other CRM (define) suites, eFax, and other on-the-go technologies. These can all be built now as Web 2.0 applications, but real integration can only come once the platform itself is opened up.
Widgets have existed on the Mac platform for some time. As companies like Yahoo and Facebook open their architectures for similar (and more deeply integrated) applications, the landscape of commerce will change. Decentralized commerce means pushing the point of sale to whatever hosting environment can accept it. Platforms like Facebook and eventually the iPhone enable this vision to extend beyond the desktop into the social networking realm and onto alternative platforms.
Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at Shop.org and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.