It seems you can't move for widgets down on the BBC farm these days. You certainly can't have a product without one.
But it's not right, the way they are treated. Packed into websites and often given no sustenance other than poor quality, recycled feeds, they suffer a cramped existence and don't have the freedom to develop.
So we decided to start setting some of them free to roam the desktop.
A free range widget
As with all good ones, this idea is not new. We have had a desktop ticker and similar products like Mini Motty for some time; they're quite successful with hundreds of thousands of users. But there are some issues with the way they work.
Firstly, they only work on Windows and are built out of a variety of proprietary tools. We'd like these to work cross-platform but we need to build them differently to do so. They are also difficult to manage and expensive to maintain.
We considered a few approaches, but decided to grow our new widget out of Adobe Flex and Adobe AIR. This is firstly because these tools met our requirements to work cross-platform and deliver the desktop experience we wanted, and also because they linked up with in-house skills in the team which manages them, making them simpler to manage.
So here's the first of a number of desktop widgets the BBC will be releasing over the coming months. It's an example of how we could develop our current ticker. It's a beta product, so it will have some issues and it is also not fully accessible, but we'd like your thoughts and comments on how it works, what you like about it compared to our current ticker and what doesn't work so well.
You will need Adobe AIR to install and run the application. If this is not installed automatically, you can download Adobe AIR from here.
And what does it do?
Well, it runs as a desktop application in a similar way to the ticker showing the latest stories and also updating you if there is breaking news. It updates stories about once a minute and should be fairly low bandwidth, as it caches data downloaded. You can take it offline and - unlike the current ticker - it also contains images and summaries of stories.
You can have it running as a small application showing stories listed from News and Sport, or you can minimise so it just shows as a ticker, scrolling current stories.
You can open up the preferences to select which feeds you get and you can click the full story links to go to the website.
You will see a BBC icon in your toolbar when the application is running and you can turn the application off from here. The first time it runs you will see the preferences window which allows you to configure the way the application works.
And that's about it.
Installation and feedback
You can download the application here [NB Editor's Note 3.03pm: If downloading via Internet Explorer, you'll need to change the file extension from .zip to .air]• (Editor's note 12.52 Thursday - you may also find this download useful if you're a Linux user)
N.B. Editors' note 19th May 2009 - this application is no longer a live prototype, so I have removed the link to download it.
Send us your comments below or through the Backstage list.
Before you do, though, here are some of the known issues, caveats, disclaimers and apologies:
- Scroll arrows are missing on scrollbar
- Can be slow to startup the first time: try clicking the News or Sport Tabs
- Accessibility support is not fully developed.
In terms of the last, we do take accessibility very seriously and would like to give some more detail on how this applies to this beta:
BBC Future Media & Technology's pilot widget application BBC LiveUpdate uses the Adobe AIR runtime, which is dependent on users downloading and installing a plugin to their desktop, but which unfortunately does not currently support screenreaders (or other software which relies on the Microsoft Active Accessibility layer for assistive technologies).
We're working with Adobe to make tools built with AIR more accessible than current products wherever possible and are committed to delivering accessible services.
As this is a beta product, there are also other limitations in how much we have been able to establish accessibility support in the following areas:
- Colour contrast cannot be altered
- Text size cannot be altered
- Lacks consistent alt text
- Lacks Title attributes
- Is not entirely tabbable.
We are sorry if you are unable to use this BBC LiveUpdate widget fully - but the content within the BBC LiveUpdate desktop application is available through existing BBC services on bbc.co.uk.
If you would like to share your views with the BBC about accessibility and the BBC LiveUpdate widget, please do not hesitate to email the BBC Usability and Accessibility Team.
John O'Donovan is Chief Architect, BBC FM&T Journalism.
Editors' note: A tad more on accessibility in this statement from Adobe: Adobe has a long history of its commitment to accessibility and Adobe AIR 1.0 currently provides support for developers to create applications that are accessible to users with special needs. AIR applications presently support many users with disabilities, such as users who are unable to use a mouse or who rely on textual equivalents for audio. AIR applications incorporate Adobe Flash, PDF, and HTML content, and Adobe support for assistive technologies for both Adobe Flash Player and Adobe Reader ensures that developers are able to deliver accessible experiences in the individual players. Adobe is continually reviewing with customers how to improve access to applications deployed on Adobe AIR for users with disabilities, in order to ensure that future versions of Adobe AIR support accessible experiences and meet emerging global accessibility standards.