Google changes iGoogle, making gadget development more profitable

On Thursday, Google rolled out an update to its personalized home page service, iGoogle. Among other UI updates, the major new features were increased flexibility in what “gadgets”, the personalized “chunks” that make up an iGoogle start page, can do. This, in turn, allows developers much more freedom with what they can provide to the user through an iGoogle gadget.

Previously, gadgets could only occupy a small box that took up only a third of the screen. While this was okay for reading headlines or perhaps glancing at stock prices, it limited the usefulness of gadgets and the information that could be provided. For more detail, users would often have to click a link in the gadget that would take them away from iGoogle. While this is perhaps the proper use of a “start page”, Google may now see things differently.

Life is a great big canvas

Gadgets now offer a near full-size “canvas” mode, where the gadget is expanded to take up most of the screen. This allows more information to be displayed and makes the iGoogle page less of a start page and more of an aggregator – like an RSS reader, but with much more.

Speaking of RSS readers, any RSS feeds on iGoogle can now be expanded into a full-feed view, using a layout/interface not unlike that of Google Reader, their specialized RSS reader product. All of these enhancements are designed to help you get the information you want, without having to leave iGoogle.

Some good examples of gadgets taking full advantage of the new functionality offered by the new iGoogle include the GasBuddy gadget, which display a small labeled map of local gas prices in the “mini” mode, which expands to a fully-searchable map complete with a clickable legend in the full-screen canvas mode.

Google’s own products, such as the Gmail and Google Calendar gadgets, have also been updated to nicely take advantage of the new abilities. In canvas mode, each gadget expands to fill the screen with pretty much the same UI as their respective web applications. This makes accessing your various Google Account services easier and decreases load times.

Content and Money

Others include the Wall Street Journal’s gadget, which in canvas mode looks similar to a start page of its own. Interestingly, ads are shown in this mode, presumably from the WSJ itself. This highlights another important aspect of gadget development: Income.

This is really the crux of the iGoogle update, in my opinion. By allowing giving more power to developers and allowing more content to be shown on iGoogle, developers can have more flexibility with their creations. In return, Google is apparently willing to allow them to show ads so they can make money off of their creations, which clearly add value to iGoogle.

It’s hardly an original idea. Facebook has had their own applications platform for well over a year, with much of the same ideas. Facebook Apps are made by third party developers, and mostly run “within” the confines of the main Facebook site, keeping users on the site. In return, developers can also choose to run ads in their application to generate revenue. It’s a very similar model. (Facebook recently awarded some of the best apps through their fbFund initiative, with the promise of more money to come – perhaps Google will do the same? They’ve already done something similar with Android in order to spurn development)

Not so fast

Unfortunately, the changes were not all good. For one thing, the vast majority of existing gadgets haven’t been rewritten to take advantage of the full canvas mode. In all likelihood, many will not, since third party developers may do as they like. Gadgets that haven’t been updated will merely be displayed besides a huge “You might also like…” list of recommended/related gadgets when displayed in full-screen canvas mode.

Furthermore, some users have complained about the UI updates. In particular, the mandatory left sidebar now in place has caused some to lament the loss in screen real-estate. Previously, tabs were only shown on top if you had defined more than one; now the list of tabs, along with the iGoogle gadgets in each one, are shown in the sidebar no matter what.

Indeed, such a display might be superfluous if there’s only one tab. At the very least, Google should have allowed the sidebar to be collapsed or tucked away. (I won’t be surprised if they implement this change in the next few days, or already have it planned)

Also surprising is how Google rolled out the new version so suddenly, effectively forcing all users to adopt it. A better approach would have been to roll out a “beta” version (we all know how much Google is in love with beta) and allow users to preview it and optionally switch. This would allow them to get more feedback before switching everyone over, like Facebook did with their new redesign, which effectively took months to take effect.

However, given that iGoogle’s user base is likely a very small percentage of all the users who have Google as their start page (with most just preferring the stripped-down original search page as their starting point), perhaps Google believed that rolling out the updated site would affect so few that a beta period wasn’t really needed. In any event, the changes are not so ground breaking to warrant serious concern.

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