By Simon Willison

HTML escapes the browser

By Simon Willison

One of the hottest topics to come out of Apple’s recent World Wide Developers Conference was the announcement of Dashboard, a new feature in the forthcoming OS X Tiger which adds a layer of useful mini-applications (aka “widgets”) to the user’s desktop. This in itself is not a new idea: the Mac had Desk Ornaments way back in 1984 while the impressive shareware application Konfabulator has provided Dashboard style functionality on OS X for some time. As an aside, for a good debunking of the “Dashboard rips off Konfabulator” meme look no further than Daring Fireball.

What’s really exciting about Dashboard is the way widgets are written. Unlike Konfabulator, where widget layouts are defined using a simple XML dialect, Dashboard widgets are written in HTML and CSS and rendered using Safari’s WebKit engine! They’re essentially mini-web pages, liberated from the browser. Dave Hyatt of the Safari team has a series of entries (1, 2 and 3) with more details.

Extending technologies that originated on the web to cover other application development domains has become something of a recurring theme in recent years. Both Adobe’s Photoshop and Macromedia’s Dreamweaver allow extensions to be created using JavaScript, and the entire Mozilla suite of applications have interfaces that are defined using a combination of CSS, JavaScript and Mozilla’s HTML-like XUL interface language. Even Microsoft are getting in on the act, with the future of Windows application development (XAML) running along very similar lines. Even Microsoft’s failed “active desktop” concept can be seen as an earlier iteration of this idea, allowing HTML applications to live under the user’s desktop.

One thing’s for sure: skills with web technologies are becoming more and more useful.

  • Excellent post!

    This is definitely the future of the desktop – a more “palm” like interface.

    I’ve been trying to get my act together to build (at least) an HTML page for my desktop, so I could access resources more quickly.

    See Maximum PC article.

    Leave it to Apple to improve upon the failed “active desktop”.

  • “Active Desktop” haha Microsoft makes it sound like some big thing…but its not all that great…

  • So essentially these widgets are just gonna be like HTAs(HTML Applications) that we have on Windows, no?

  • Jerry Mead

    Zeepe on Windows ( has enabled this (and a great deal more, like multi-windowed systems) for ages.

  • Patsu

    I always thought it’s futile to argue that so-and-so has already implemented Dashboard before, because Desk Accessories (The key idea in Dashboard) have been in place since 1984.

    HTML Applications or Zeepe innovate in implementation approaches. These attempts have different goals from Apple’s. They remain obscure as developer tools and do not seem to target your average end users.

    Dashboard start from the end users’ perspective. So the integration of these web widgets into the OS for everyday use is on a different level. e.g., provide average users quick and easy access to the widgets; allowing them to manage them on screen, …

    I think Apple should also have more streamlined way of transfering the data from widgets to other applications easily (beyond just cut and paste). I remember Apple used to release cut and paste “extensions” that can auto-recognize the data type (e.g., phone numbers, date, address, url, …) and try to do smart things with them.

  • ldicarro

    Does anyone have a place where they can learn how to build widgets? That is what I have noted is lacking so far.

  • Anonymous


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