Q: How did an app come to be referred to as a widget?
A: The story begins in the early 20th century, when an unnamed gadget was called a “widget” for the first time, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The usage appeared in Beggar on Horseback, a 1924 play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly about a struggling classical composer who plans to marry the daughter of a rich industrialist.
In a dream sequence, the composer imagines giving up music to work for the industrialist: “What business are we in?” he asks. “Widgets,” his father-in-law says. “We’re in the widget business.” On waking up, the composer decides to marry the girl next door instead.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “widget” in this sense as “an indefinite term for a small gadget or mechanical contrivance.” The dictionary labels it “origin uncertain,” but adds that it’s “perhaps an arbitrary alteration of gadget.”
In the 1990s, according to the OED, “widget” took on the computing sense of “an application designed to perform a relatively simple task, esp. one which displays a simple piece of information (such as a weather report or the date and time) on the screen of a computer, smartphone, etc.”
The first Oxford citation is from a June 19, 1991, comment on a Usenet newsgroup (comp.windows.x): “A customer wants to have a row of clocks showing different timezones. Unfortunately the clock widget doesn’t handle that case very well.”
As for “application,” it showed up as a computer term in the 1950s, according to the earliest OED citation:
“This approach to a file maintenance application implies that a number, or ‘batch’ of transactions is collected and sorted into the order of the master file” (Programming for Digital Computers, 1959, by Joachim Jeenel).
The shortened version, “app,” showed up a few decades later in an advertisement (originally with a period at the end to indicate an abbreviation): “Strong IBM customer … will hire a tech support person to … interface with app. development and comp. operations people” (Computerworld, April 20, 1981).