It is all too easy to get caught up in the hype that comes with the latest and greatest cellphones. And right now, the latest and greatest are the iPhone and the iPhone clones that, with a touch of the finger, open up maps, restaurant listings and the weather.
If those phones are too pricey for your budget or you’ve got more months on your contract with your carrier, there might be another way to get some of those handy services on your phone: widgets. (For a touch screen, you’ll just have to wait.)
Widgets are small applications, most often free, that appear on your phone’s menu pages. They deliver news or information to most handsets. You can use them to track down a cab company or follow stock prices. Other widgets deliver maps or headlines from media sources like the BBC, Bloomberg and this newspaper. For anyone with a smartphone that has the ability to connect to the Internet, it might make sense to simply use the included Web browser to visit Google Maps, YouTube and such, but if you’re looking to extend the life of an older handset, widgets are a good option.
Widgets will not turn your vintage Motorola StarTAC into an iPhone, but they will add features and functions that you didn’t think your phone could ever possess. There are several Web sites that offer widgets like GetMobio.com, Plusmo.com, Openwave.com and WidSets.com.
WidSets is one of the most popular such places because it has a large library of more than 2,650 widgets that work on more than 300 devices from all the leading manufacturers, even though the site is affiliated with Nokia, the world’s largest maker of handsets. Most phones made in the last three years are supported by WidSets, including golden oldies like the Motorola RAZR V3.
GetMobio has fewer widgets and supports about 90 phones, but among its widgets are a cheap-gas finder, a store locator and something called the Panic Kit, which locates locksmiths, cab companies and pharmacies at the spur of the moment. Plusmo’s roster is not as extensive, but among its widgets are applications to bring in news from CNN and a daily Peanuts cartoon.
Why would you use widgets when your carrier might offer similar applications? To save money. Cellular providers do not make much money selling handsets to consumers; in fact, they typically subsidize your handset purchase. By paying for a portion of your device, they’re investing in you for the next two years. Over the contract’s life, the real money is made in monthly service plan fees, overage charges and the extra services they can offer you.
That’s where free widgets come in. You can avoid paying for extra services like news headlines and sports information that carriers typically bundle in packages for $5, $10, $20 or more. Often, you do not need the whole bundle, just one small feature like a stock price ticker or a weather update. Single-purpose widgets might serve your purpose (and your budget) better since you’re installing only what you need.
While widgets are usually free, you can still end up paying your carrier for data transfer or airtime. The widgets need to piggyback on your cellular connection for data. Verify with your carrier that you either have some data allowance included in your plan or that it will charge only a nominal fee for small amounts of data. (Afterward, you can use the Traffic Feature in WidSets widgets to track how much data airtime you use.) Occasional updates of text data may seem small, but they add up quickly, so prepare accordingly with your service provider and monthly plan.
It does not matter whether your phone is on the CDMA network that Verizon Wireless, Sprint and Alltel use or the GSM network that AT&T and T-Mobile use. The determining factor for widget compatibility is whether your phone supports Java software, or more specifically what is known as Java MIDP 2.0. With a few notable exceptions, like the Apple iPhone, Java is fairly commonplace in handsets because it gives the wireless carriers a flexible and easy way to add services. Smartphones that run on Windows Mobile, Palm and even BlackBerry operating systems also support Java, though on some phones you may have to download it first.
It is easy to install widgets. Go to WidSets.com to verify whether your phone can accept widgets. Widgets that you select are sent directly to your handset along with a WidSets application to run them. The process should take less than five minutes.
Here are some popular and most recommended widgets to get you started:
¶AccuWeather. One of the most useful widgets is also one of the most popular; at last check, more than 125,000 people were running this widget. And why not when you can get the weather forecast, including local current weather, extended forecasts and even radar maps?
¶Google Calendar. The Web-based calendar is with you everywhere with this widget. The best part? Update your calendar in one place on the Internet and the changes are viewable on other devices.
¶Wikipedia. There’s an option to turn off images in this encyclopedia and provide just text to speed up the information download as well as reduce the amount of data transferred.
¶YouTube. This widget might be a little more limited than the iPhone’s YouTube application, but you can still catch recently added videos and more.
¶Flickr. One of the most popular photo-sharing services on the Internet is right in the palm of your hand. You can view your photos and those that your friends and family have uploaded or search by a keyword to see what’s out there.
¶Private Chat. Those instant-message fees add up quickly. Get your closest friends to install this widget and pay for just the airtime in real-time chat sessions. With over 350,000 users, you’ll never be lonely again, but you might want to invest in an unlimited data plan for this one.
¶Twitter. If you want a wider audience than just one chat participant, Twitter is the answer. This short-messaging service allows you to “micro-blog” your life in 140 character bursts.
¶Sudoku. You’ve got a number pad on that phone, so why not use it to exercise your brain?
¶EBay. Searching for that special item? Now you can do it all the time and everywhere.
¶Newsvine. A combination of mainstream news and user-generated opinions that offers up wide viewpoints on current topics. Start with headlines in the widget and read any story with a single click. You can also choose to have news that focuses on a keyword of your choice.