Mac Notes

By Jeffrey Allen

Fun with Widgets

Every good law student knows about widgets. The Acme Manufacturing Company builds widgets for law professors to use in law school hypothetical discussions or in law school examinations. The simple truth of the matter is that while everyone knows about widgets, nobody could tell you what a widget looked like or what it did, largely because, like Puff the Magic Dragon, a widget is mythological.

A few years ago, the term “widget” took on a new meaning. A computer program called Konfabulator made use of smaller programs called “widgets” to provide additional and highly focused functionality to your computer. Widgets let you perform common tasks and provide you with quick and easy access to information.

More recently, Apple released System X version 10.4 (also known as Tiger). Tiger incorporated a new feature known as the Dashboard. The Dashboard provides a home for a number of small single purpose programs called—you guessed it—widgets. Apple built a nice starting collection of widgets into the system software, but you can easily add to the collection. Once you get started with widgets, you likely will want to continue to do so.

To access Tiger’s Dashboard (unless you have changed your keyboard selections) you simply press f12 one time. When you do that, you get a semitransparent screen full of widgets, each designed to do its specific job. If you have collected too many widgets that the screen cannot show all of them at once, you will want to turn them off and restart them, as you need them. In that case, the Dashboard will set those not on the screen on a series of pages that you can access by moving your cursor to the “+” that appears in a circle in the lower left corner of the screen. When you click it, a strip of icons (the “widget bar”) appears in the lower portion of your screen. The icons represent the other widgets in your collection that are not open and on the initial screen. Note that there may be more than one page of icons in the widget bar. If so, you can access the other pages by moving your cursor to one of the arrows appearing on either side of the widget bar. Holding your cursor over an arrow will cause it to display the number of pages of icons in your collection. To close the widget bar, simply move the cursor back to the lower left corner, where you will discover that the “+” in a circle as morphed into an “x” in a circle. Click the “x” and the strip disappears. To close out of the widgets, press f12 again.

In a recent update to System 10.4, Apple added a new widget manager, making use of a larger widget collection even easier. It allows you to access all of your widgets in a single window and lets you enable or disable a particular widget by clicking in its box in the manager window.

Building your own widgets does not take a significant amount of effort, and is a skill capable of mastery by people who do not normally program computers. There is a rumor floating around that Apple will release a new program in the relatively near future that will provide a series of templates for the creation of widgets. Such a program will make widget creation even easier. At least one of the rumors has gone so far as to provide a name for the alleged program: “DashCode.” Time will tell whether the rumors reflect fact or wishful thinking. In the mean time, most of us will build our widget collection by downloading the work of others.

With a little bit of effort, you can easily build a very substantial collection of ready-made widgets. You can get most of them free, but some require payment. Apple’s own website offers more than 1,000 widgets to get your collection started ( http://www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard). For another excellent source for widgets as well as information about things to come, take a look at Dashboard Widgets.com ( www.dashboardwidgets.com). Both of those sites have classified available widgets into categories to make your search easier. Installation of downloaded widgets proves extremely easy. At the conclusion of the download process, most widgets self-install. They then open the Dashboard and give you a choice of keeping or deleting the new widget.

Some of the available widgets function as utilities (like the widget manager). Others will get you specific information about a service you use (like the widget that tracks Federal Express packages). You can find widgets that will make a dictionary and thesaurus available to you. Some widgets will search your computer for information collected in connection with a program on the computer, such as the address widget that searches your address book for information. Some widgets, like the “Ask Jeeves” widget, the “Yellow Pages” widget, “Map” widget or the “Weather” widget will search other databases or the Internet itself for information. Vendors have jumped into the act with widgets that let you do some shopping. Among the vendor widgets available: Amazon, E-Bay, Apple, CDW, dealmac, and Netflix (partial list). Look for more to come.

It should come as no surprise that in addition to the work-related widgets, you can find widgets for entertainment as well. Some of the entertainment widgets provide Internet radio functionality, television functionality, web cam viewing, etc. It is also possible to find widgets that provide information as to television programming, movies, etc.

To find out what widgets you already have, you can either use the widget bar or simply go to your Library folder and look inside for the Widgets folder. Note that you may find widgets stored in computer’s main Library folder and/or in individual Users’ Library folders or both. To make sure that you have identified all that you have, check all the Library folders. If you want to make your life easier, you can easily consolidate the widgets into a single folder by dragging and dropping from one Library folder to another. It then becomes easy to back up the widgets or to move them to another computer by simply copying the one folder and moving its contents to another computer’s Library folder. Note, however, that widgets in an individual User’s folder will only work for that User when logged into the computer; widgets stored in the main Library folder, however, will work for any and all Users.

In dealing with widgets, there are a few things you will find helpful. First, when you open the widget bar an “x” appears by each open widget. Clicking that “x” closes the widget and moves it to the widget bar. Choosing a widget from the bar and then clicking on it (double click) will open a widget up. When you click f12, all open widgets show on the screen. If you look at a widget and see a small “i” on it, clicking on the “i” flips the widget display to its back side and that usually allows you to make selections that will reflect in the front side when you switch back. For example, clicking on the “i” in the Weather widget allows you to select the city for which the widget will display weather information and choose between the option of a display of the temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius.

While each of you will form your own list of favorite widgets, there are some that you probably will not want to be without. I have found the following widgets particularly useful: Phone Book, Address Book, Google, Google Maps, Ask Jeeves, Weather, Calendar, World Clock, Dictionary (includes a thesaurus), Calculator, Package Tracker, Widget Manager, World Clock, CNN, and Yahoo Traffic. I also have found the iTunes Widget, Video Poker, Asteroids, MacMan, Rabbit Radio (Internet Radio), TV Tracker, and World TV entertaining. You may also enjoy checking out some of the web cam widgets available for locations in major cities or other venues.

For those of you who remember when pundits delighted in describing each new iteration of Windows as having a more “Mac-like” appearance and who find entertainment in keeping track of such things, it appears that the next version of Windows will have “Gadgets.” Gadgets, reportedly, will look and function very much like, you guessed it, widgets. Hmm.

Jeffrey Allen (jallenlawtek@aol.com) has a general practice in Oakland, California. His firm, Graves & Allen, emphasizes real estate and business transactions and litigation. He is a frequent speaker and author on technology topics and the Editor-in-Chief of the GPSolo Technology & Practice Guide and the Technology eReport.

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