What is a widget? In Android, the word widget is a generic term for a bit of self-contained code that displays a program, or a piece of a program, that is also (usually) a shortcut to a larger application. We see them every day on web pages, on our computer desktop and on our smartphones, but we never give too much thought into how great they are. Widgets first appeared in Android in version 1.5, and really gained traction thanks to HTC's Sense-flavored version of the operating system. Prior to the release of the HTC Hero and our first taste of Sense, widgets were functional, but pretty bland in appearance. Since then, OEMs and independent developers alike have done some marvelous things with widgets, and it's hard to imagine using Android without them.
Android widgets come in all shapes and sizes and range from the utilitarian 1-by-1 shortcut style to full-page widgets that blow us away with the eye-candy. Both types are very useful, and it's pretty common to see a widget or two on the home screen of any Android phone. A full-page widget, like HTC's weather widget for late-model Android phones, tells you everything you need to know about the current conditions, and is also a quick gateway to the weather application where you can see things like forecasts and weather data for other cities. At the other end of the spectrum, the Google Reader 1x1 widget watches a folder in your Google Reader account and tells you how many unread items there are, and opens the full application when pressed. Both are very handy, and add a lot to the Android experience.
Most Android phones come with a handful of built-in widgets. Some manufacturer versions of Android offer more than others, but the basics like a clock, calendar, or bookmarks widget are usually well represented. This is just the tip of the iceberg though. A quick trip into the Android Market will dazzle you with the huge catalog of third-party widgets available, with something that suits almost every taste. With Ice Cream Sandwich supporting things like higher resolution screens and re-sizable widgets, it's going to be an exciting year seeing what developers can come up with.