a life of coding

Monday, July 25, 2005

Konfabulator - Has Apple Been Bad?

Konfabulator - Desk Accessories for the modern OS, has made some noise today in the form of being bought by Yahoo. This recent news has dug up opinions of Apple's Dashboard and whether or not Apple stole the idea from Konfabulator. I don't want to continue this year long rant, but a little back story won't hurt:

Konfabulator is a cross platform (Mac/Windows) environment for writing Desk Accessories (now called Widgets) written by Arlo Rose and Perry Clarke as a little company called Pixoria. Their story is now illustrated on their website. Konfabulator widgets are JavaScript, an XML descriptor, and some images. They are distributed as bundles on the Mac, and zip files on the PC. The graphic representation of them has an alpha channel, and drop shadows, and generally looks a lot like an app that Apple would write - probably because Arlo writes Mac software (like Kaleidoscope) and worked at Apple for a while. Behind the scenes, Konfabulator widgets are each run in their own JavaScript virtual machine environment (called SpiderMonkey).

Dashboard is also an environment for writing Desk Accessories (also now called Widgets, though they were originally Gadgets) that Apple has included in Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger). Dashboard Widgets are written as web pages in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The Dashboard engine uses Apple's WebKit (from Safari), and executes all the Widgets in the same environment. Development of Widgets can be done in a web browser, and they are distributed as bundles. It looks a lot like an app that Apple would write, with window alpha channels, drop shadows, and silly GUI effects.

About a year ago, one blogger had an opinion that has fueled many a flame war - his blog is daringfireball. To summarize his point, Dashboard is not a rip of Konfabulator, because they share a common ancestor in Apple's original Desk Accessories. His claim is that Konfabulator brought nothing more than looks to the table, and any Apple re-implementation of their original Desk Accessories (which has been long overdue... I miss my Desk Accessories) would look exactly like Dashboard, and its quite unfortunate that a small shareware developer happened to do the same thing 6 months earlier. People have been quite vocal about daringfireball being an apologist for this evil that Apple has perpetrated, but personally I have to agree with his argument. Where most people say Apple should have bought Konfabulator, daringfireball points out that 1) they had already created the idea that Konfabulator knocked off (Desk Accessories), and 2) Konfabulator is very clunky under the hood. Konfabulator is based on completely different technologies (Mozilla's JavaScript) than Mac OS X (Apple's WebKit), and used to take up a lot more memory and CPU, but the latest version (2.x) is much improved.

The bottom line is that Konfabulator was not a good match for Apple, who would have gained nothing from buying a product that imitates one of their old products. Apple buys competing technologies when the technology is good and buying it is cheaper than building it from scratch - like iTunes. In this case, building from scratch produced a better product and probably cost less, and its hard to fault a company for making a great product for less money.


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