Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Really Bad Software 

I'm having a really hard time figuring out what Google was thinking with their Sidebar in Google Desktop Search.

As Microsoft's Windows UI has gotten older and older (Windows XP was available in 2001) without any change, I've found it hasn't really kept up with what I'd like my OS to be doing. Its battery and WiFi status applets are pretty much useless, despite how important they are to the way I use my computer. There are many repetitive tasks I need to do on the web that I'd love to have automated. Advanced computer users I have talked to recently have dismissed desktop search products as useless, but I like the idea and find it useful (and both MacOS and Linux have very good implementations now).

Yahoo's Konfabulator has actually been a welcome addition to my desktop. Its battery status and WiFi monitors are much better than the ones Windows provides, and have a permanent place on my desktop, where they look entirely like they fit in. As someone who lives on the east coast, I also frequently have to check the weather, and so the Weather widget is quite welcome on "Konspose," where I can access it by simply pressing F8, along with a few other applets. (I know most of my readership is west coast, and this weather-checking seems like strangely fussy behavior to you, but if you live in a climate-controlled high-rise on the weather-enabled east coast, checking the weather first-hand can be more of a hassle, and besides, it's quite likely to change throughout the day).

I've had a few complaints with Konfabulator. Each widget is its own process, which annoys me when I look through my process list, the only widgets worth using are those that come with Konfabulator, as the user-designed widgets are always ugly and poorly designed, and I dislike the fact that I can only choose to put something on my desktop or in Konspose. So I've been waiting and hoping that Google would come out with something similar and, in the long tradition of Google Maps and Gmail, much better.

Well, they did, and it totally sucks. Well, not totally. I like that it is a part of Google Desktop, and provides Spotlight-like real-time search capabilities. Using this feature seems to be faster than navigating through the Start menu or folder heirarchy for most things I am looking for. Love it, it's great. Everything else is all wrong, though.

With Google Desktop, you have two options: keep the sidebar on the side of your screen, taking up the entire vertical length, or have it auto-hide. Well, clearly I am not going to cut off a significant fraction of my screen for a weather applet, so mine is on auto-hide. But there is no short-cut key to reveal it, as far as I can tell, so I potentially have to wheel my mouse all the way across my screen to get to it.

What's worse is how they chose to build this thing: It's built out of COM components. I can see why this would seem appealing to a programmer: write the plugins in any language you want! But it makes writing plugins a total pain in the ass: "We recommend using Microsoft Visual Studio for developing the plug-in." I consider myself an able developer, comfortable in C++ and Visual Studio and all that, and this just strikes me as too much effort for the payoff of a little widget for this thing (try looking at the SDK examples, and while you're at it, check out the simplistic-looking stuff that all this effort buys you).

In contrast, Konfabulator widgets are written in XML and Javascript, and Dashboard widgets are written in HTML with Javascript. This is a piece of cake, and any web developer can do it. Since Javascript can access COM, these widgets seem just as capable of interacting with system functions as well. Furthermore, these bundles of XML and Javascript come in their own package format, which Konfabulator or Dashboard registers itself as a handler for. The user simply clicks the download button and the widget can pop right up on their screen. What I am about to say next is so stunning that I'm going to give it it's own paragraph.

Google's Sidebar widgets use installers. That's right, the usual Installshield-style things, with entries in your Add/Remove Programs and Start Menu and everything.

Why is an OS company like Apple, with no significant web properties, doing this The Web Way, and a web company, whose products make it to the user's eyes entirely through the cooperation of the OS companies doing this the difficult, painful, non-cross-platform Windows-only way? What the heck was Google thinking?

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