Netvibes and the Widget Economy:
Netvibes CEO Tariq Krim predicts the end of the Webpage and the rise of the widget economy. Goodbye banner ads.
Tariq Krim is widget crazy (watch the video above). The CEO of French startup Netvibes, the site where you can build a personal homepage from news and data feeds from all over the Web, is about to unleash a whole lot of widgets onto the Web. (A widget is a tiny application or piece of a Website that constantly streams new information to you).
Netvibes is a "no-logo" Website where users have total control (and was one of B2.0's Disruptors). Already, it is a place where you can basically create any little information widget you like and arrange it with others on your personal page. You do so by dragging and dropping boxes that contain feeds from your favorite blogs, newspapers, Flickr photos, YouTube videos, weather service, stock charts, Gmail, . . . you name it (see screen capture above). Soon, Krim tells me, Netvibes will be supporting embedded video and audio podcasts as well. As he explains it:
The motivation for Netvibes was to have something to let me get my digital life back. The Internet is like a big hard drive. You have your photos on Flickr, your email on Gmail, your videos on YouTube. Netvibes brings them back together.
Now he is about to blow it all apart. Within the next few weeks, all of those little boxes (Krim calls them "modules") will become exportable as widgets to other Websites as well. "I love destroying what I build," he says.
It's Krim's way of contributing to the budding widget economy. Netvibes has 10 million active users, If you figure that each one has created at least five modules per page, that's a lot of potential widgets. Krim declares:
Widgets are killing the Webpage. It is time to go to something else. We are entering the widget economy. We are going there no matter what.
Netvibes Goes Social (and the Widget API):
Netvibes CEO Tariq Krim hints social networking features in the works for April, and discusses his soon-to-be released Universal Widget API.
How will you keep track of the millions of widgets out there? Krim believes your social network will tell you which ones to pay attention to. And rather than reinvent the wheel, Krim says Netvibes will try to make it easy for you to import your existing buddy lists from other social networks and instant messaging platforms. "For me," says Krim, "the social network is my new address book. But it is a living address book." (In other words, he wants to create that missing Web 2.0 address book everyone's been waiting for).
But what exactly is a widget economy? And if widgets will one day kill (or even wound) the Webpage, what will that do to today's dominant forms of Web advertising, which, after all, are based on the very existence of the Webpage?
Let's begin by understanding what widgets are. The reason we are seeing widgets all over the place is because the Web has become programmable. It is now possible to separate the underlying data of the Web from the presentation of that data, which means that one Website's data can be presented anywhere (witness Yahoo Pipes).
One of the most common forms that this disembodied data is taking is the widget. And this is not confined to the PC. "For me, the iPhone is the widget phone," points out Krim. (Indeed, if you look at a picture of an iPhone, you will see that all of the applications are little widgets. Now, if only Apple would actually allow other people to freely design widgets for the iPhone instead of controlling every one, it could become the new PC that Jobs wants it to be).
Widgets are popping up everywhere. For instance, another personalized homepage service called Yourminis, backed by Mark Cuban, let's you build widgets and export them as well (but it doesn't yet have nearly as many users as Netvibes). Google's personalized home page can also be considered a collection of widgets. Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo also offer desktop widgets. And Typepad, the service that hosts this blog, now lets you turn your blog into a "blidget," or blog widget. The examples abound.
Widgets are by no means for everyone. They have a long way to go before they threaten the Webpage. First, not everyone wants to become a programmer, no matter how easy sites like Netvibes or Yourminis (shown at left) make it to mix and match the Web. In fact, many people still enjoy being programmed to. That's why there is TV.
Second, if you try to put more than six or seven widgets on a page you soon discover why some people get paid to be Web designers and you don't. It's hard to visually organize information on a page or series of pages. In theory, many people might say they would like to organize the Web for themselves. But who has the time?
Finally, many computers are simply not up to the task. When I was playing around with Yourminis a few weeks ago, for instance, I got carried away and created too many widgets (or "minis" in that Website's parlance) and my browser froze trying to serve up all the data. Perhaps that is because Yourminis is built on Flash, which looks good but still takes up a lot of computing resources compared to Ajax-heavy sites like Netvibes, or perhaps it's because my laptop is a sad, wheezing codger that deserves to be put out of its misery. The point is that just because this stuff is possible, does not mean it is going to take over the world anytime soon.
However, what is kludgey today may seem natural tomorrow as computing power and bandwidth march forward. The idea that you can strip out exactly the data you want from all over the Web without the irrelevant parts (read: blinking ads) and reassemble it on your own page or the pages you frequent the most could be deeply disruptive.
It's like TiVo. If you can strip out the ads, who is going to pay for the Websites? Krim suggests that marketers will have to start building their own widgets that people will actually subscribe to either because they are extremely entertaining or relevant to them. "Right now," says Krim, "it is the attention war. People are fighting for people's attention."
And since widgets are applications, they can be more than simple messages. Instead of a banner ad for the Gap, for instance, why not push a little piece of the Gap store right to a consumer's browser at the point when she is thinking about buying a new sweater? Again, sounds good in theory. But getting people to opt into those types of marketing widgets will be no easy trick.
There are other potential widget business models also being explored, such as transactional widgets that kick back a percentage of any resulting Amazon/iTunes/eBay purchase or Google search. If they ever do take off, widgets also could be sponsored by advertisers, or even licensed outright by large media companies desperate to do anything to keep their shrinking audiences engaged. And then, of course, there is always the possibility of mini-advertisements in the widgets themselves. In the end, ads are like ants. They find their way into everything.
Update (2/21/07): TechCrunch adds it's take on Netvibes' Universal Widget API here.