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ATPM 10.08
August 2004


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by Wes Meltzer,

Much Ado About Dashboard

You may have heard recently some of the chatter about Dashboard, Apple’s new technology for Mac OS X 10.4, announced at WWDC, to display little snippets of useful information in an Exposé layer.

It’s possible you did not. In that case, Vice President Cheney, please try and get cable TV or Internet access in your Undisclosed Location.

Especially if you read weblogs, you will probably find that July was just full of talk about Dashboard, which is in large part the work of active blogger Dave Hyatt and which uses souped-up XHTML and WebKit to power the widgets. No doubt some of excitement was due to the real-time previews and discussions on Hyatt’s Weblog, Surfin’ Safari.

Of course, while Dashboard is really cool technology, a dull roar from certain segments of the Mac blogosphere bemoaned Apple stealing yet another technology from innovative developers: Konfabulator. Arlo Rose, one of Konfabulator’s developers, told Geek Patrol about how sore he was over the misappropriation:

I knew they were real. But there wasn’t anything we could have done about it, I mean two independent developers don’t have the resources to go up against Apple the way Apple does with other people.

And, in the bigger picture, I honestly hope that Dashboard will do us more good than harm. It’s a subset of Konfabulator, and is modal. But I think it’s pretty low of them to call their objects Widgets like we do. It’ll cause confusion.

I think it was pretty uncouth of Apple to steamroll us rather than work with us. It would have made them look good to work with a 3rd party developer to make their application better and more integrated than just wiping them out.


It would have been nice if they’d made a gesture, However, I’m not sure what we would have done. As we’re not terribly far from having a Windows version and I can’t imagine that Apple would have let that live, and I think that’s a great opportunity for revenue.

I’m not convinced by the superficial similarity of Dashboard and Konfabulator, and neither were a number of other bloggers, who took two lines of defense: either Dashboard and Konfabulator weren’t alike because of the differences in their underlying rendering (Konfabulator uses XML and JavaScript, Dashboard uses XHTML and JavaScript), or the similarities weren’t important because Apple first came up with the idea of widgets in 1981.

(Those original widgets, for those of you who like a trip down memory lane, were called “Desk Ornaments,” and Bud Tribble and Andy Hertzfeld put a bunch together. The original control panel, designed by the always-brilliant Susan Kare, was designed as a desk ornament and used no text labels. Amazing stuff.)

Jumping head-first into the fray was my favorite Mac pundit, John Gruber, who initially remarked that the controversy was no different from the complaining about LiteSwitch X and Watson. He added that the biggest difference, as I said earlier, was in the underlying rendering—and that the superficial similarities are there because Konfabulator mimics the OS X look so successfully. Most of all, he implies the clincher: can your mom write a Konfabulator widget? Your mom might be able to write a Dashboard widget. (Depending on your mom. Mine doesn’t know what a “dialog” is, so XHTML and JavaScript are out of the question. Maybe if they write an IDE that can plug in stock code. Maybe not.)

I’m not really sure how far one ought take this logic, but Gruber continued to defend his remarks later, with the best rejoinder in a long time:

[M]ost of the “faces” in Panic’s Audion gallery could easily pass as Konfabulator widgets or Dashboard gadgets—the irregular window shapes, the transparency, the alpha channel blending. Same for Winamp, whose “skins” probably deserve to be recognized as the trailblazing example.

Brent Simmons, of NetNewsWire fame, doesn’t appear to be particularly worried about the precedent that Apple is setting (despite all the chatter about his product, NetNewsWire, being threatened by Safari RSS). However, he notes briefly that it would have been good PR for Apple to acknowledge Konfabulator, and “worth ten times the price they would have paid.”

To continue my long tradition of citing friends here at ATPM, Chris Turner says that in light of its massive resource bloat per widget it wasn’t ever worth it to use Konfabulator, whereas Dashboard might just be as long as it doesn’t eat RAM for breakfast.

It’s well worth considering that Microsoft intended for the browser to extend to the desktop with Windows 98, and that now Apple is asking Safari to do the same thing now, at least according to Todd Dominey. This would make Dashboard like ActiveX controls, which ultimately lock end users into Internet Explorer; can Apple corral those Dashboard-only XHTML extensions out of the Web? Dave Hyatt says yes, and reminds that Dashboard is really more like XUL/XPCOM (from the Mozilla project) than like ActiveX; he also informs us—the unwashed masses—that the plug-in that makes all of this tick will not be available in Safari or WebCore regardless. So at least, no anti-choice, security-risk problems forthcoming.

The most exciting thing to see about Dashboard was a collection of widgets from WWDC that Erik Veland put together; unfortunately, he was forced to take them down by Apple Legal. You might still be able to find them somewhere else, though, if you want to take a look (the JavaScript was pretty slick, if memory serves).

All right, enough on Dashboard. What else happened in the news this month? Not much, as far as the Mac blogosphere is concerned. Of interest may be:

It looks like that’s a wrap for this month. I’m going to be taking August (September’s issue) off, as the work schedule at my summer job is making life increasingly difficult to write, but I’ll look forward to seeing you all again the first of October!

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