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The world of widgets: get information you want right from your computer's desktop.

I remember when "widget" meant nothing specific. It was a generic term for make-believe products in business classes and algebra word problems. Today widgets are small, single-task computer programs you keep handy on your desktop. In the Macintosh's early days they were called desk accessories, and displaying a clock on your screen was about as cool as they got. But now the Internet has spawned vast numbers of them.

They became known as widgets largely because of a cross-platform utility called Konfabulator. The similar, but distinct, Dashboard was built into the Mac operating system in 2005. Shortly thereafter, Yahoo! Inc. acquired Konfabulator and turned it into the Yahoo! Widget Engine. (Dashboard works only with Mac OS 10.4; Yahoo! Widgets need at least Mac OS 10.3 or Windows 2000.) They're coming to Windows Vista too, under the name "gadgets."

Widgets are self-contained packages of the HTML and JavaScript code used to build Web pages. Their uses range from games to news tickers. I use widgets to print envelopes, display weather radar, and check for the lowest local gas prices. There are thousands to choose from among both widget species. All those I've seen are free.

Windows and Mac users can visit the Yahoo! forum (http://widgets.yahoo.com) to download the display engine, see the widget du jour, and browse 11 categories. Mac users also have the option for Apple-specific ones at www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard.

There aren't yet many astronomical widgets available, but enough exist to inspire you to give them a whirl.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

In early February Imaginova, makers of the Starry Night line of desktop-planetarium software, released a free widget for Mac users (http://store.starrynightstore.com/widget.html). It provides a small window displaying the current sky. If you live in the US or Canada, you can simply enter your ZIP or postal code. Otherwise you'll have to enter your latitude and longitude (find them at http://mapper.acme.com). Click on the star map to be taken to Space.com for a Web-based star map with additional capabilities.

Other interesting Dashboard widgets include SunPosition, APOD Viewer (for the Astronomy Picture of the Day), and Solar Viewer (for the latest images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory).

Two decades after desk accessories, people still like having a clock on the desktop. Now we can go a few steps further. If you can't live without knowing the sidereal time or Julian date, you'll appreciate Cedric Foellmi's AstroTimes for Dashboard. Or you can likewise tuck Greg Hewgill's Yahoo! widget in the corner of your monitor.

Eclipse enthusiasts will enjoy experimenting with Jubier Xavier's Solar Eclipse Calculator--a Yahoo! widget that will tell you the local circumstances of eclipses through 2039. The Yahoo! widgetarium also contains a pair of APOD viewers and other space-imagery utilities. And both repositories have plenty of Moon-related widgets too.

We hope to offer our own astro widgets soon, based on our interactive observing tools on SkyTonight.com. I'll note them on my blog at SkyTonight.com/community/skyblog when they become available.

Associate editor Stuart Goldman loves to follow the progress of packages heading his way with UPS and FedEx tracking widgets.

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Title Annotation:astronomy online
Author:Goldman, Stuart J.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Jun 1, 2007
Words:529
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