Widgets have been one of the major features requested and rumored for iOS since the early days of the platform. Ever since Apple started letting developers create apps for iOS, we’ve been wandering if they would ever implement a widget system, allowing tiny applications for common tasks without having to boot up a whole new instance. Apple bakes this into OS X with Dashboard, so why not iOS? In fact, the lack of certain basic apps on the iPad prompted some to claim that widgets were just around the corner.
Hopes were high that iOS 5 would finally bring this functionality to the iPhone and iPad, and when Apple announced the new OS, widgets were there — sort of. With iOS 5 in its current form, when you pull down to get to the notification center you can see two little iOS 5 widgets: weather and stocks. Weather and stocks? That’s it? Is that seriously all Apple is planning on doing? Maybe…or maybe not.
I’m betting Apple is planning a lot more in the way of widgets, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if the service even got something as dramatic as its own app store. Why is that? Because even in this early beta version of iOS 5, it’s incredibly easy to get into the widgets menu, and to add your own. This all percolated on Friday, when an Italian programmer started nosing around a jailbroken version of iOS 5 — and he found that the widgets were kept in a folder system/library/WeeAppPlugins. Not hidden away deep in the recesses, not guarded or sneakily hidden. To get files onto it, the Dev Team didn’t need to find a new hack into the OS, there was no confusing sideloading, no piggybacking on legitimate channels. Within the same day, Willfour20 had a basic prototype up and running to print “hello world.”
Known jailbreak developer Chronic informed 9to5Mac that all a developer needs to do is create a “custom view interface” and “compile it is a bulletinboard plugin.” Bulletinboard is Apple’s internal codename for the iOS 5 Notification Center.
Compared to the original and extremely painful path to getting jailbroken apps onto iOS — or even getting apps onto jailbroken AppleTVs — this is simple in the extreme.
This news broke on Friday evening. It’s now Monday afternoon, and we already have a ton of vaguely functional widgets either available or in the works. UISettings gives you easy access to controls for WiFi, Bluetooth, Airplane, Brightness, Volume, Respring, Safe Mode, Power Off and Reboot, right from the notification center. SpringPrefs is set to give you your system stats from the menu; WidgetTask puts your taskbar into the notifications tray; and there’s one in the works to show you the currently playing album.
Installing these widgets (when they’re actually available) is no great task either. Just like normal jailbreak apps, you just point Cydia at the right repository, and they’re downloaded and installed.
This has been over the course of less than three days. Admittedly, some of these aren’t even close to being fully realized, but there are functioning prototypes running from the notifications tray — and it wasn’t hard to get them there. It was almost terrifyingly easy — which is what makes me think that Apple wants people to access it. Maybe not jailbreakers, and maybe not right now, but it certainly seems to indicate that developers are meant to be able to get there.
The question now is: how is this going to play out? Will it stay a jailbreaker’s tweak? Or is Apple planning something bigger and better for widgets?
The worst case scenario here is that this easy access to the widgets is a factor of this being an early iOS beta, and that future versions — notably the release candidate — will totally wall it off, killing the easy loading of “wee apps.” I’m not saying it will happen, but it’s pretty common for security features to change from beta 1 and the release candidate. Sure, once it gets a final release the jailbreakers will find a way around it — after all, they now have the idea in their head — but it could slow down or cripple the development process.
Alternatively, Apple could keep the function just how it is, and never say another word about it. Jailbreakers could have it at their fingertips, and the rest of us would look on in awe — more or less how the situation was with notifications up until a week ago.
A sadder outcome would be that Apple kills it at the 11th hour. We’ve seen this happen before: beta editions of software will have all indications that an awesome feature will be in it, the final betas will still have them, but it’s strangely missing from the released version. This happened with some iPad gestures, and Apple might look to support taskbar apps, but it might never eventuate.
My gut reaction — and that of many other commenters in the echo chamber — is that what Apple is creating here is a new area for applets, and that the future versions of iOS 5 might have a whole bevy of widgets to chose from. Apart from just stocks and weather, we’ll doubtless see iCal, news feeds, stickies, and a whole host of other functions provided natively by Apple, and you can pick and chose which ones you like.
But that just raises another, equally interesting question. Will Apple provide this API to developers? Because if so, it could spark a major change in the way that applications, and the app store, function on iOS. Games could have a plugin that lets you perform simple actions via the notification center or FourSquare could add a “check in” button, and you just hit it and up pops a list of nearby locations.
We might also see some of the small and occasionally stupid apps migrate to the notification center rather than be an entire separate app on their own. For instance, think of the flashlight apps that sprung up with the iPhone 4. Why do I need an application to launch so I can hit a single button and turn on my LED? A small switch in notification center would perform that perfectly. Likewise, the universal scourge of soundboard apps. If I really want my iPhone to make fart noises, just have the buttons on the notification center, and it’ll be fine.
For all I know, this information may even have been given to certain developers. Those who attended WWDC are still under NDA for much of what they learned, and it’s possible that they have the APIs already and are secretly working on this — though I doubt it. Apple’s NDA is notoriously leaky.
I don’t have any evidence that Apple is planning on making widgets a feature in iOS 5, but the fact that they’re so easily accessible screams to me that Apple has something interesting in mind for them.