Four years ago a wonderful application called Sideshow came out of Microsoft Research. It was the standard docking-bar-full-of-applets-on-the-side-of-your-screen (way before Apple Widgets and Konfabulator), but the part they really nailed was how natural it was to use. Not surprising, since it was created by user interface researchers!

MSR Sideshow applets (or “tickets”) used the concept of “peripheral awareness”, keeping just the highlights of information in the periphery of your vision – how many emails in your inbox, whether the roads home were still congested, your current bug count, that kind of stuff. Then, if you moved your mouse over one of the Sideshow applets, it would slide out a little window with just a bit more information – for example, the subject lines of all unread emails. Move the mouse away, and the window disappeared again, and you could get back to work. But click on it, and even more information appeared – for example, clicking on an email subject line would open the email itself.

Once you’d used Sideshow, it was very difficult to live without it. Sadly some bozo leaked the bits, at which point a VP put his foot down and had yanked it from the internal servers. I had a private install that I kept going for a year or two before losing the bits in a machine swap, and a cut-down version shipped in the MSN 8 Dashboard, but with no way to write your own applets it was a crippled shadow of its former self. Then the Longhorn team started teasing us with the new Sidebar – would it ship, wouldn’t it ship?

So it was great to see that not only is Windows Vista Sidebar going to ship, its applets will be able to work in three different contexts – on your desktop, on custom web pages, and on peripheral devices! Granted, the usual marketing naming makeover means that applets are now called “gadgets”, and they hijacked the Sideshow name to mean just the display on peripheral devices, but the core of it remains the same. Our computing lives are going to get easier! :)

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