26 June 2005

Each week since OS X’s release introduction, the same topic comes again and again in one of the many feeds I subscribe to: is Dashboard really useful? And, pretty much every time since the very first announcements (because the concept was already quite familiar, due to Konfabulator), the answer’s been: No.

It’s time for me to weigh in (like I have a weight). I still think the same way I did when I first tried Konfabulator on Windows: it’s useless because almost nobody really comprehends the concept’s (huge) interest.

Those who criticize Dashboard always bring up the same point: everything it does, websites and software utilities do it better. If you don’t use the calculator often, you don’t want to waste a tenth of your screen space (and your RAM) to keep it displayed in your Dashboard; if you do, pressing F12 then having to point and click to activate it is less convenient than using alt-tab or Quicksilver. And the same applies, of course, to all those widgets that give you access to websites. What’s the point of keeping Google, Amazon or whatever in your Dashboard when you can have them in your Safari bookmarks (or, then again, in Quicksilver)?

That’s because nobody — including Apple’s own developers, it seems — has realized that the whole point of Dashboard isn’t to offer access to utilities but to display information. Press a single key, have access at a glance (as opposed to anything requiring additional mouse clicks) to all the information you can need: five-day weather (Apple widget, I didn’t say they were completely off-base), current iTunes track (AlbumArt), your iCal schedule (iCal Events, and you can also find to-do-list widgets), your online contacts (AdiumList, there are iChat equivalents), and… and… oh, right, that’s pretty much all of it, because informative widgets aren’t many — particularly considering that such information often needs localization (TV schedules, traffic info, etc.). Among the good ideas I don’t have a use for, you can also find Apple’s Stocks widgets, webcam and photolog displays, or rudimentary RSS widgets, which can be (transitorily) useful to people who don’t know about aggregators yet. And that’s about it, and that’s far from crowding my 20-incher. Because most developers are looking for ideas in the wrong direction.

Forget utilities. Just think of what information the users might want to keep just a click away. Or a non-click, more accurately. The great strength of Dashboard is that it only takes a keypress, or a shove of the pointer in a screen corner, to display a screen where each piece of information is always at the same place, where the eye immediately knows where to find what it’s looking for — it has a memory you mouse pointer doesn’t have.

Think: portal. Even Google is going this way now, if you don’t believe me.

Now if only the international geek community read my blog, I wouldn’t feel like I’m talking to myself here.

P.S. The presence of the dictionary and translation widgets on my Dashboard’s screenshot is not in total contradiction with my post, for a reason: I don’t know any application or website grouping both functionalities in a clear and convenient way — but I’ll probably get to make my own webpage displaying both in frames. As for the screenshot and password widgets, they’re small, more practical than the corresponding utilities (every rule has its exceptions), and considering how much free space there’s on my Dashboard I can definitely afford to leave them there.