Sprout Withers: Widgets will be Whacked

February 17, 2010

I thought Sprout –as a free/cheap tool for making promotional web  ‘widgets’– was too good to last. And I was right.   There are some lessons in the Sprout story for Easy eMedia users.

A couple of days ago I got an email  notifying me that Sprout is shutting down free and low-cost accounts on  Sprout Builder, an online service that made it possible for anyone–without knowing Flash or other complicated programs–  to create  “widgets” that function like tiny websites-within-websites, with multiple pages, links and multimedia content. Sprout will now only provide pricey accounts for big commercial customers.

The widgets  made with the free/cheap  accounts will be deleted from Sprout– and thus from all websites where they currently appear– on May 14. After that, Sprout says,  “an empty space will appear on all the [website] pages on which your Sprout [widgets] once lived.”  What’s more: “Unfortunately, there is no way to download or save your projects.”

But wait– there  is one way to save them: that’s to come up with $2999 a year to become a Sprout “enterprise” customer.  But, if you can’t,  it’s RIP to whatever widgets you may have made using a free Sprout account –which allowed the creation and distribution of up to three widgets– or with monthly accounts costing $19 or $59 a month for, respectively, up to 15 or 35 widgets.

All this may require some explanation: “Sprouts” –that is, widgets made with Sprout  — are not downloaded to your computer after you’ve  put them together using the cool drag-and-drop interface on the Sprout site.(I’ll use the present tense here because, as I’ve noted,  high-end Sprouts will survive the widget massacre).You don’t upload  them directly to your website or sites.   Instead, Sprout stores all the files needed to display and play your widget  and  distributes them, via  another company called Gigya.,  to your website,  Facebook page, and wherever else you want (or pay) for them to appear in all their clickable, multimedia  splendor.   So Sprouts are (were?) a great way to  promote your own recordings or books –or the activities of  your organization or small business.

I first signed up for Sprout in July, 2008,  just a few months after the company launched Sprout Builder. Like many other people, including the author of this rave on ReadWriteWeb, I was immediately wowed by how uncomplicated Sprout Builder was to use and how sophisticated the results were.   It was very easy to make good-looking widgets that included audio and video clips, RSS feeds and links to other websites.

The company was pretty straightforward about the fact that we’d be getting free accounts in exchange for, in effect, acting as product testers as it built the service.  It wasn’t a secret –if you read the not-so-fine print– that Sprout wanted to start charging as soon as it could.  And it did, in April 2009.

At that point, I had only two widgets in my account– one simply displayed an RSS feed and had been an experiment, the other (shown here in a “non-working” version so it doesn’t disappear on May 14) promoted  Howard Mandel’s book  Miles Ornette Cecil and was (and, as of today, still is) in use on his blog and Facebook page.

I considered upgrading my account to a paid version, but since I was involved in other projects at the time and had no clients clamoring for me to make them widgets, I decided to wait.

And now, it seems, that was a lucky thing– because while I’m a bit irked that my free “Sprouts” are going to disappear,  I’d be more upset if I’d been paying  a monthly fee to produce and distribute them –and now had no way to copy and download them for use somewhere else.

Certainly, Sprout has every right to follow whatever business plan suits it best.  If that means dumping customers who pay little or nothing, well . . . we all gotta make a living.  And we “beta testers”  certainly had a nice ride while it lasted.

But there’s a warning here for all of us who rely on free and low cost services to create and maintain our online business or organizational presence.   Providers can –and often do–  start charging  for services that were free, raise their prices a lot, or even disappear without warning.   When –as here– some of  your online assets (files, documents, images, whatever) are stored on the provider’s computer (“in the cloud”) your own web presence and even your business or organizational plans may be affected.  So –I know, you’ve heard it before– backup backup backup whatever you can OFFline.  And when –as with Sprout– there’s no way to backup,  make sure that  you don’t become too reliant on the service and have a “Plan B” for replacing the assets you’ve entrusted to it.

Sprout said (in answer to a question on the company blog) that it can’t recommend a replacement service for those of us who had used and liked Sprout’s previously free or inexpensive widget-maker:

We’re not comfortable recommending a specific tool to our users, though we did look carefully at the market to see if there was a comparable service that we could transition our users to. In the end, there just wasn’t anything out there quite like Sprout. The fact is that it’s a very powerful tool and is suited to enterprise users. We hope that those users who really use the product will recognize that the subscription $2,999 is an incredible value.

Well,  yes, it IS a very powerful tool, but it’s also true that very many potential users simply can’t come up with that kind of money just to make a few widgets for their small business or organization.   And—truth be told– most small-scale users could probably live without the super-distribution powers of Gigya,  though it would be great if they could continue, at a reasonably low cost, to create widgets using Sprout’s  great online interface  –or a stripped-down version of it, a la Photoshop Elements– and then download their Sprouts for self-hosting on their own website.  I don’t know anything about the technologies that Sprout currently uses “behind the scenes”  to process and store finished widgets, but I think in the “early days” it was possible to download finished Sprouts (perhaps as a Flash file).

Anyway– it was nice while it lasted, and I’ll keep you posted as I learn about new products to fill the gap.

UPDATE:  3/3/10 I’m taking another look at Widgetbox ; used it a few times awhile ago and it was easy but no match for Sprout functionality. Will see what it’s got going now.

Filed under: webmaker tools,widgets

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2 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Mike  |  April 27, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Hi JoAnn – Robin and I were glad to meet you at the NTEN conference.

    Thanks for this post. It resonated with us as we have been fussing with our widgets for quite some time now – and with the sunsetting of Sprout for the masses – widgets looked like another “flash” in the pan.

    But great pointer on using Widgetbox. We’ll give it a spin…I wonder what other rich media products will arise similar to Sprout?

  • 2. JoAnn  |  April 27, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Hi Mike: Thanks for visiting! Was nice to meet you too.
    I’m currently using Widgetbox for the Jazz Journalists Association, and have created widgets for their
    annual Jazz Awards that appear on several big jazz sites. These get more traffic than the JJA’s own sites, so it seems like a good way to get word out.
    The widgets aren’t as slick-looking as out-of-the-box Sprouts (though if I spent more time with Widgetbox or were a real graphic artist, I’m sure that would be possible). But I’m generally happy with it. When I get time, I’ll try to write a full post (thanks for reminding me.)
    JoAnn

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