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Andrew's Widgets Developing Dashboard Widgets Debugging Widget JavaScript

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A brief introduction to building widgets for Apple’s Dashboard environment.

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Note: I have begun writing a series on some advanced widget development topics The Loop, my company’s blog. The series is based on things I learned while developing Sundial. Check it out!

What the heck is a widget?

According to Apple, widgets are “mini-applications that let you perform common tasks and provide you with fast access to information.” The cool thing for web developers and designers is that widgets are at their heart just web pages, bundled in a specific way. So, if you can make a useful web page, you can probably make a useful widget! All you need is a little information about their structure.

-1)?'images/dashboard.jpg':'images/dashboard_bar.jpg';this.title=(this.src.indexOf('_bar')>-1)?'Click to see the Dashboard with the widget bar hidden':'Click to see the Dashboard with the widget bar showing' />
My desktop with Dashboard enabled

Widgets are simply bundles of text and image files. By adding the “.wdgt” extension to a folder, you turn the folder into a bundle which is treated by Mac OS X as one file. Conversely, you can explore the code and graphics for any widget by either removing the “.wdgt” extension or just control-clicking on the widget and choosing “Show Package Contents”.

Widget

Yahoo Widget For Mac

Hello World

When learning a new programming language, the first task is typically to write a trivial program to print “Hello World” on the screen. We will now take a look at the Dashboard equivalent!

Apple has been kind enough to post a “Hello World” widget on their Sample Dashboard Code page. I have mirrored it on my server in case they move or delete it for some reason. Here is a breakdown of the parts that make up HelloWorld.wdgt:

  • HelloWorld.html – the heart of our widget, this HTML file contains everything you’d normally see in a simple web page
  • Default.png – this image file is what users will see while the widget is initializing
  • Icon.png – this image file is what users will see in their widget bar (the place from which users load new widgets)
  • Info.plist – this XML file contains information used by Mac OS X to describe the widget

HelloWorld.html

For this example, Apple keeps it really simple! Here’s the code:

Note: You can name the file anything you want. It just needs to match up with the corresponding value in your Info.plist file.

Default.png

This image is what the user will see when s/he loads the widget, but is also used in this case as our backdrop. The image dimensions for your Default.png typically correspond to the size of your widget as specified in your Info.plist file.

Icon.png

This image is what the user will see when s/he opens the widget bar. It is analogous to a desktop application’s icon. According to Apple’s widget design guidelines, this image should be 85 x 85 pixels with the “content” of the image taking up 74 x 74 pixels, at most.

Info.plist

This XML file is used by Mac OS X. It describes the widget and controls whether the widget has access to particular system resources (internet connectivity, command-line applications, the filesystem, etc.). The plist (short for property list) for “Hello World” contains mostly just the essential items.

Let’s look at each of the elements and what they do:

  • CFBundleDisplayName – the string that will be displayed in the widget bar under the Icon.png image
  • CFBundleIdentifier – unique, reverse domain name style string identifying your widget
  • CFBundleVersion – widget version number (this key is optional)
  • CloseBoxInsetX & CloseBoxInsetY – distance of the close box for the widget from the top and left corners, respectively, expressed in pixels (these are optional)
  • MainHTML – the filename for the widget’s default HTML file

There are several other possible plist keys you can include. See the Dashboard Reference for the full list of plist keys.

Tip: A common mistake is not to include a needed security-related key.

Inexplicably, Apple left “CFBundleName” out of it’s example plist file, despite the documentation saying it is required.

File

Hello World Screenshot

The following is a screenshot of our Hello World widget in action:

Nifty Stuff You Can Do

Now, making a widget that just sits there isn’t very useful. What makes a useful web page (and, by extension, a useful widget!) is interactivity. Widgets can do anything a web page can do, but they can also do some pretty nifty things a web page cannot.

System Access

Within the Dashboard environment, JavaScript has access to a special object called “widget”. This allows Apple to open up a host of functionality, including the ability to access the Mac OS X command-line within your widgets. Pretty much anything you can do from the command-line, you can do within a widget. Wow! How’s that for possibilities? I’ve used this feature to do the following in my widgets:

  • call a PHP script that reads the contents of a directory in SlideShow
  • generate a pronounceable password using a compiled C program in Make-A-Pass
  • copy some text to the pasteboard in Make-A-Pass and SnippetComposer
  • call a shell script (containing embedded AppleScript) in MyResolution

Here are a couple of examples:

Save & Retrieve Preferences

The widget object can also be used to save and retrieve preferences unique to a widget, or even a particular instance of a widget. These are similar to cookies within a regular web browser. This allows you to maintain state across sessions and otherwise track a user’s settings. Here is an example from Make-A-Pass:

Asynchronous HTTP Requests

There has been much hype lately about Ajax. Ajax is the name given to the technique of tapping into modern web browsers’ ability to make and handle asynchronous HTTP requests. If that last sentence makes you go “Huh?” I’ll explain. Let’s take a look at the canonical example: Google Maps. No, really, take a look. Follow the link, zoom in, pan around. Get some driving directions. Pretty slick, eh? I won’t go into detail about how they do it (others already have), except for this: every time you change what you’re looking at, your web browser makes a request to Google’s servers and parses the XML response, all using some pretty clever JavaScript.

Well, guess what? Widgets can do the same thing! A common use of this capability is to grab RSS feeds and parse them. I did this in my Today in New Mexico widget. Here is the relevant code:

Quartz Methods

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Quartz is Apple’s name for its graphics rendering framework. Desktop apps written in Java, Objective-C, REALbasic, etc. make calls to the Quartz API to draw stuff on the screen. Well, Apple has integrated into Safari the ability to access Quartz methods directly using JavaScript. This gives developers some awesome possibilities! I tapped some Quartz methods in my SlideShow widget to show the current slide reversed as the backside of the widget. Here is the relevant code:

As you can see, the potential capabilities of widgets are virtually limitless!

Resources

Recommended Reading

Any or all of the following will help advance your widget building skills.

Dashboard Widgets for Mac OS X Tiger: Visual QuickStart Guide – by Dori Smith

Mac OS X Technology Guide to Dashboard – by Danny Goodman

JavaScript: The Definitive Guide – by David Flanagan

DHTML: The Definitive Reference – by Danny Goodman

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Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide – by Eric A. Meyer

HTML & XHTML: The Definitive Guide – by Chuck Musciano and Bill Kennedy

Beginning AppleScript (Programmer to Programmer) – by Stephen G. Kochan

Cocoa® Programming for Mac® OS X – by Aaron Hillegass

The following are some resources to help you get started building your own widgets.

  • Apple Resources:
    • Safari JavaScript Reference – covers mostly Safari-specific topics
    • Dashboard-dev – Dashboard developer’s discussion list
  • Widget Download Sites:
  • Widget Developer Forums:
    • Dashboard-dev – Apple’s Dashboard developer’s discussion list
  • Online Tutorials:
    • Apple’s Dashboard Tutorial – the best, by far!
  • Dashboard-Specific Books:
    • Dashboard Widgets for Mac OS X Tiger: Visual QuickStart Guide, by Dori Smith
    • Mac OS X Technology Guide to Dashboard, by Danny Goodman
  • Random Handy Stuff:
    • Widget Creator – template and graphics for creating widgets
    • Widgetarium – IDE for widget development; buggy but looks promising!
    • DevMode – widget to enable Dashboard’s developer mode
  • Downloads of Widget Code Referenced Above:
    • Hello World – 13 KB
    • Make-A-Pass – 82 KB
    • MyResolution – 32 KB
    • SlideShow – 1.28 MB
    • SnippetComposer – 33 KB
    • Today in New Mexico – 45 KB

Users can install the current version of ipywidgets withpip orconda.

In most cases, installing the Python ipywidgets package will also automatically configure classic Jupyter Notebook and JupyterLab 3.0 to display ipywidgets. With pip, do:

or with conda, do:

Installing in classic Jupyter Notebook¶

Most of the time, installing ipywidgets automatically configures Jupyter Notebook to use widgets. The ipywidgets package does this by depending on the widgetsnbextension package, which configures the classic Jupyter Notebook to display and use widgets. If you have an old version of Jupyter Notebook installed, you may need to manually enable the ipywidgets notebook extension with:

When using virtualenv and working inan activated virtual environment, the --sys-prefix option may be requiredto enable the extension and keep the environment isolated (i.e.jupyternbextensionenable--pywidgetsnbextension--sys-prefix).

If your Jupyter Notebook and the IPython kernel are installed in differentenvironments (for example, separate environments are providing differentPython kernels), then the installation requires two steps:

  1. Install the widgetsnbextension package in the environmentcontaining the Jupyter Notebook server.
  2. Install ipywidgets in each kernel’s environment that will use ipywidgets.

For example, if using conda environments, with Jupyter Notebook installed on thebase environment and the kernel installed in an environment called py36,the commands are:

Installing in JupyterLab 3.0¶

Most of the time, installing ipywidgets automatically configures JupyterLab 3.0 to use widgets. The ipywidgets package does this by depending on the jupyterlab_widgets package, version 1.0, which configures JupyterLab 3 to display and use widgets.

If your JupyterLab and the IPython kernel are installed in differentenvironments (for example, separate environments are providing differentPython kernels), then the installation requires two steps:

  1. Install the jupyterlab_widgets package (version 1.0 or later) in the environmentcontaining JupyterLab.
  2. Install ipywidgets in each kernel’s environment that will use ipywidgets.

For example, if using conda environments, with JupyterLab installed on thebase environment and the kernel installed in an environment called py36,the commands are:

Installing into JupyterLab 1 or 2¶

To install the JupyterLab extension into JupyterLab 1 or 2, you also need to run the command below ina terminal which requires that you have nodejsinstalled.

For example, if using conda environments, you can install nodejs with:

Then you can install the labextension:

This command defaults to installing the latest version of the ipywidgetsJupyterLab extension. Depending on the version of JupyterLab you have installed, youmay need to install an older version.

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If you install this extension while JupyterLab is running, you will need torefresh the page or restart JupyterLab before the changes take effect.

Note: A clean reinstall of the JupyterLab extension can be done by firstrunning the jupyterlabclean command which will remove the staging andstatic directories from the lab directory. The location of the lab directorycan be queried by executing the command jupyterlabpath in your terminal.

Frequently Asked Questions¶

The issues in the Reference milestone on GitHub include many questions, discussions,and answers about ipywidgets.

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Question: When I display a widget or interact, I just see some text, such as IntSlider(value=0) or interactive(children=(IntSlider(value=0,description='x',max=1),Output()),_dom_classes=('widget-interact',)). What is wrong?

Answer: A text representation of the widget is printed if the widget controlis not available. It may mean the widget JavaScript is still loading. If themessage persists in the Jupyter Notebook or JupyterLab, it likely means that thewidgets JavaScript library is either not installed or not enabled. See theinstallation instructions above for setup instructions.

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If you see this message in another frontend (for example, a static rendering onGitHub or NBViewer), it may meanthat your frontend doesn’t currently support widgets.