What is a Widget?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

This term can mean different things, depending on who is talking and the context. In one sense, a widget is any sort of small, as-yet unnamed mechanical item, and the term is often used interchangeably with “gadget.” Within the web development community, it is a piece of self-enclosed code that can be embedded into a website or program to perform a specific function. Many websites take advantage of this type of code to increase their functionality and customizability.

A widget can be embedded into the code of a website.
A widget can be embedded into the code of a website.

The word appears to be American in origin, and it first appeared in print in 1924, as a generic placeholder name in a play. It was used to describe the products of a factory; the end product was not as important as the process of working in the factory, creating small, seemingly meaningless items in a repetitive way which ate away at the soul of the hero. Over time, the word came to be adopted into common English.

There are two ways in which a “widget” can be used in this sense. In the first case, the word is a placeholder, referring to any sort of mechanical artifact. The term is often used this way in the arts, where a character in a movie might work at the Acme Widget Company, or someone in a book might be famous for inventing one. In this case, the precise identity of the item is not important, and a placeholder is used so that people do not become distracted.

The term is also used to describe hypothetical products that may someday be invented, or products that are in the development stages. A developer for a car company might say, for example, that it would be nice to have one that stored data about gasoline efficiency for the use of the driver, or someone might say that he or she is “working on a widget” for a company. Since product naming is an extremely important step in the development of a product, the use of a generic term allows people to discuss the project without forcing a name on it, and it has the advantage of also protecting product secrecy.

In the computing world, widgets appear in a wide range of places. Many bloggers and users of social networking sites take advantage of them to make their sites more interesting and fun for their users. One may do any number of things, from organizing a blogger's posts by topic to allowing people to play interactive games with other users of a website. These pieces of code are typically developed by third parties, and users should take care when using and installing them, as they may contain malicious code. As a general rule, it is a good idea to get ones that have been officially approved for a website or platform.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


The term widget in the 1960s was the name of a small device that allowed a four track tape to be played on an eight track tape player. First there was vinyl (records), reel to reel, next four and eight track tapes, cassettes, then CDs, MP3s, etc.


Thanks so much for telling me what the hell a widget was! I've had one on my HTC, and had no clue what it was used for. Your article was informative and precise. Thanks again. --CN


For Twitter enthusiasts, there are various widgets available on the Twitter website. One of the most used ones allows the user to display Twitter updates on his/her website and social networking sites. This Twitters widget allows its "Tweeters" to post their "tweets" and view friends' "tweets" on social networking sites such as Facebook. They are compatible with any website and most social networking sites.


GoogleGadgets has a popular "widget" that acts as a calendar for the computer. This widget allows the user to see the date while also viewing and having access to his/her schedule of appointments or obligations. The widget is handy as it presents organizational information right on the desktop.


There are many widgets designed to run on your desktop. They are small applications that give specific information to the user. There used to be a widget called Konfabulator. Now it is called Yahoo!Widgets. There are thousands of different types of widgets that you can install on your computer and can be fun and functional.

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