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Konfabulate Your PC

by Thomas Kunneth

If you have any friends with a Mac (or have one yourself), you might have come across a great tool called Konfabulator. It displays so-called widgets, which you can think of as mini apps that accomplish specific tasks. It's one of the coolest features of the Mac--but you don't have to suffer from Mac envy, because as I'll show you in this article, it's available for the PC as well. (Konfabulator is shareware and is free to try, but it costs $24.95 if you continue using it.)

Konfabulator's widgets can do all kinds of things, such as display the state of your notebook's battery, indicate current CPU usage, facilitate Google and Amazon searches, and show the weather forecast for your town. Some of them can save your day, while others, like the picture frame shown in Figure 1 below, are just plain cool.

Picture frame widget
Figure 1. The picture frame widget

Widgets are not written in ordinary programming languages like C++ or Java but rather are developed using JavaScript and XML and therefore can be crafted easily. When building a widget, one can concentrate on the user interface and the widget's intended functionality, because the oddities of real programming are hidden. So, not surprisingly, a huge number of widgets are available. (Apple, by the way, is expected to include a new feature called Dashboard in the Tiger release of Mac OS X, which closely resembles Konfabulator and is due early this year.)

Konfabulator neatly integrates itself into Windows. You can access its functions--installing a new widget, for example--by clicking on an icon in the notification area. (On a Mac you will find the Konfabulator icon at the top right of the screen.) Once you select the widget in the file dialog box, you will immediately see it onscreen. Moving the mouse over a widget and right-clicking produces a menu that you can use to close a widget or modify its settings. Some of the menu items are widget specific, while others apply to any widget. You can, for example, configure how widget windows are placed in the stack of open windows. Figure 2 shows the menu of the WiFi widget.

Menu of the WiFi widget
Figure 2. The menu of the WiFi widget

A very nice feature called Konspose hides all widgets that are in Konspose mode until a certain key is pressed. Just like on the Mac, it defaults to F8. Figure 3 shows Konspose mode.

Thumbnail--click for full-size image.
Figure 3. Konspose mode (click for full-size image)

Konfabulator works exactly as it does on the Mac, but it does things in a way a Windows user expects it to. Still, a Mac OS X user will immediately feel at home, because the widgets look exactly the same on a Mac and on Windows. A minor drawback is that the Windows version doesn't show nice preview icons if you open the widgets folder; you will see generic icons instead. A preview would have come in handy, because that way you'd be able to know ahead of time what the widget did before double-clicking to open it.

What if you want Konfabulator coolness but not the Konfabulator price? You can get a freeware competitor to Konfabulator called Kapsules, shown in Figure 4.

KAPWeather widget
Figure 4. The KAPWeather widget

Although its version number has not yet reached 1.0, Kapsules is reliable and stable. It was inspired by Konfabulator, and many features work the same. For example, the main functions are available through an icon in the notification area. You can arrange widgets by dragging them to the desired position, and you can even configure their z-order, or their position in the window stack.

Kapsules widget menu
Figure 5. A Shift-right click can activate the widget menu

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Kapsules requires Windows 2000, XP, or 2003; Microsoft Scripting 5.6; and the .NET Framework version 1.1 in order to run. So before downloading and installing the program, visit Windows Update to obtain the latest version of the .NET framework. Kapsules makes use of the Microsoft Active Scripting Engine, which is a part of Windows. With this built-in scripting engine, Kapsules widgets can be written in several scripting languages. Among them are JScript, VBScript, and even Python and Ruby. The only precaution is that the user must have that language's add-on engine installed.

Konfabulator and Kapsules use different scripting engines and different ways to package widgets, so they cannot exchange widgets easily. Unfortunately Kapsules does not come with many preinstalled widgets. but you can access the Kapsules home page to download additional widgets from the application menu in the notification area.

Konfabulator is a must-have tool for everyone who works with a real Mac now and then. If you just want to get widgets onto your desktop, however, Kapsules is a great choice as well.

Thomas Kunneth is a senior professional at the German authorities, specializing in database systems and application development. He has an MA from Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg in computational linguistics and the German language.

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