Playing with Konfabulator

There is one area in which the Internet has had an effect perhaps more pronounced than all its other ramifications: software names. From Skype, to Ubuntu, to Greasemonkey, the young developers who currently stand astride computing technology’s leading edge seem to favor the off-the-wall, the punnish, and the pleasingly ethnic. Just which of those categories Konfabulator falls into, I couldn’t say if my life depended on it. That hasn’t kept me from having a lot of fun with it, though.

The best way I can describe Konfabulator is this: it is a shell that runs Javascript, provides a framework of common services that extend the language, and allows scripts to easily do things like display images, read files, connect to COM objects, etc. Konfabulator loads the scripts and runs them. The scripts themselves provide the user interface and the functionality. Konfabulator also parses XML entities and instantiates them as objects, so that the script can access and manipulate their properties. This is how user interface elements are created, among other things. Konfabulator’s creators decided that these bundles of XML and script should be called widgets, and widgets they are. Currently I have six running on my desktop.

Konfabulator started on the Mac, and is hugely popular on that platform. The Mac has always been notable for the slickness of its interface, and the widgets that are available for Konfabulator flaunt that ancestry with striking design, soft colors, transparency, and reflective effects. In other words: they’re pretty. They are also useful. I have one that runs Winamp, another that displays an elegant analog clock, and a third that monitors CPU and memory load. None of them are essential, but they are cool.

No good idea remains unmolested, of course, and Konfabulator now has plenty of competition. Skinning the Frog at has a nice article comparing some of the different platforms. In addition to Konfabulator and Samurize, probably the two most popular, there is DesktopX, and Object Dock, and now Microsoft and Apple are both adding widgets, or gadgets, or whatever the marketing types decide to call them, to their own shells. Recently, Yahoo purchased Konfabulator, and it may be that, as with browsers, the independent guys will be out of this market in a few years. That would be a shame, but the creators of Konfabulator will always be a part of the history of the applet paradigm.

Konfabulator is very easy to use. You can download the latest version, 2.1.1, here. Once it is installed you will find a folder of widgets that come packaged with the apps. Just open the folder and double-click on a .widget file, and you’re in business. Once you fool around a bit you can visit the Konfabulator Widget Gallery and grab a few more. Most are small, and download in seconds. Once you have a few running on your desktop, hit the F8 key, and experience one of the application’s neatest features: Konspose mode. In Konspose mode all the normal Windows XP desktop elements receed behind a grey fog, and all the widgets pop up to the front. Very slick.

If you would like to write widgets you’ll need a text editor and a paint program in which to create graphics, and of course some knowledge of Javascript and XML will be helpful too. If you don’t have that, then Konfabulator is not a bad environment to learn it in. The reference .PDF docs make the process and syntax pretty clear, and in a lot of ways working with widgets reminds me of programming in BASIC circa 1980: you make a change and run the program and see the results immediately. The whole environment in which the app runs is very simple and makes it a pleasure to explore new capabilities. So now that you know about Konfabulator, you have something better to do than read this website. Go accessorize!

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