Defining ‘widget’

Widget: an American word, a potent metaphor from another era. Widgets are those nameless mechanical devices used in stories and undergraduate text books to stand for the output of equally nameless old-fashioned factories. In this definition, a widget is a complex item, made from multiple smaller parts, with an undefined function, itself part of a larger manufactured thing. A widget is not the final product, nor is it the raw material. It’s something in between.

The widget is the fundamental unit of industrial-era economics. It’s a symbol for the wonders of mass production. It’s a word that conjures up images of mighty factories, smokestacks and warehouses stacked to the horizon with identical manufactured items. ‘Widget’ stands for the epic physicality of industrial production, for flawless repetition and for uniformity of demand.

It stands also for the value added in manufacture: the work done to turn raw materials into parts and parts into a finished widget is capitalism’s primary process. The word is as old as mass production itself. It’s a sepia-toned word from the era of the Model-T and it comes in any colour you like so long as it’s black. Incidentally, modern industrial marketing – a set of disciplines evolved by men of the machine age, men who were the servants of mass production’s inventors Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan – was made to shift widgets.

And it’s a durable image. It’s jumped neatly into the vocabulary of the new economy where it’s become symbolic of different forces: the atomisation of business processes and applications. Not the repetitive logic of mass production but the exploded, distributed logic of the networked economy.

Widgets, in this new world, are still manufactured things (people still make them) but they’re not physical things any more: they’re proper post-industrial objects: nothing more than lines of text, slugs of code that call other slugs of code. They’re tiny pieces of software, mini-programs that you can velcro into your blog or onto your computer’s desktop.

They have limited, well-defined functions: like displaying photographs from your flickr account or fetching the latest forecast from Accuweather but there’s no real limit to the richness and usefulness of a widget: if it can be coded, it can be delivered in a widget.

Software, whose evolution to date has been all about, well, size, is exploding into a million tiny pieces. Application functionality is being subdivided and distributed around the network. It’s a kind of software devolution: functions will execute where they’re needed instead of where they happen to have been written.

Much of this is driven by the geek passion for efficiency and reuse, for driving wasteful duplication out of the system. In this they’re like those widgets from the industrial era: they’re about making the best use of resources, squeezing the maximum value from your assets. Out of this trend will grow an economy.

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1 comment

  1. Good re-definition Steve. I’d recommend folks listen to your bits (and rest) of ‘Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised’ session from back in May (

    Also, eerily reminiscent in a way of a post of mine from even further back in the NMK days, but unfortunately that was on the NMK site and NMK severs were burnt to the ground in a fire in Harrow last month!

    And people complain about Twitter and Facebook being down for an hour here and there. The whole internet clearly teeters (or is that Twitters) on a knife-edge 😉

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