The future is now!
Monday, November 13, 2006 by Frogboy | Discussion: Customization Software
It's been over 5 years since the last major release of Microsoft Windows. Back then, many people wondered "would people need Object Desktop with Windows XP?" With all the great new features of Windows XP, why would anyone need a desktop enhancement suite designed to take the OS to the next level? Wasn't Windows XP the next level? As time has shown, millions of users looked to programs to enhance their Windows experience further.
Object Desktop gave users a taste of things to come. Looking back, below are some things that Object Desktop users were able to see first.
Taskbar thumbnails, window transitions, window scaling and alpha blended shadows
WindowFX, a program of Object Desktop, was the first program to introduce alpha blended shadows to Windows. WindowFX betas on Object Desktop also provided thumbnail previews of tasks long before they showed up in Longhorn. Similarly, WindowFX was able to provide a host of options for how windows reacted to being closed or minimized.
Some users, at the time, argued that these things "slowed down" the computer, but users with faster hardware knew better and in fact, any machine that is capable of running Windows Vista would have no difficulty with the effects in WindowFX. WindowFX, incidentally, only uses a couple megabytes of memory. Another feature WindowFX delivered was providing scaleable windows. This will be explored further on Windows Vista. The idea was that rather than simply resizing a window, users could rescale it if they chose.
Contrary to what some Mac advocates would have you believe (and what has been subsequently repeated in the media for the past couple of years), user-created mini-applications that use a scripting language for their functionality (called things ranging from widgets to gadgets to gizmos) first arrived in the form of DesktopX. By the time programs like Konfabulator or Apple's Dashboard had come out, DesktopX was already a mature technology. With nearly FOUR MILLION downloads on Download.com alone, DesktopX is also immensely popular.
In other words, Object Desktop users have been familiar with gadgets and widgets and the like for a long time. DesktopX 3 Pro introduced the concept of gadgets -- widgets that didn't require any special run-time to already be installed. Windows Vista has introduced gadgets as part of the operating system in the form of the Sidebar. As we'll be discussing, Stardock is updating DesktopX to be able to export its gadgets to work on the Windows Sidebar.
The earliest screenshots of Object Desktop on OS/2 included a major feature called Control Center. This Control Center was a bar that was typically attached to the right of the screen that displayed a clock, system information, virtual desktops, to-do lists, and more. Today, these same kinds of bars are typically called sidebars. Windows Vista even includes one. Users of Object Desktop have had programs like ObjectBar to create their own bars for years.
Semi-Transparent title bars
The most popular program in Object Desktop is WindowBlinds.
Many people thought it would be impossible to have semi-transparent title bars and other effects on Windows XP and still have good performance. But as Object Desktop users know, WindowBlinds 5 not only can do it, but does it while improving the overall performance of Windows. Power users who have put together incredibly powerful systems know already that WindowBlinds is one of the first things to add if for nothing else than to better run at high resolution and eliminate repainting. Windows Vista delivers glass effects in the form of Aero. Object Desktop users have even been able to make Windows XP look very similar to Vista (don't ask us for the skin, it was so accurate that Microsoft requested its removal).
...And So On...
Windows evolves to become better and better. Windows XP was a huge improvement for most users over what was out there (mostly Windows 98/ME). Windows Vista is a major improvement over Windows XP. Stardock will continue to enhance its software for Windows XP but it will also begin taking Windows Vista to the next level.
Windows Vista -- to the next level
Windows Vista has immense potential and Microsoft, more so than any previous version of Windows, has opened it up for enhancement and improvement. With Windows Vista, Microsoft actively worked with developers to improve the user experience out of the box and beyond.
Most of the improvements come in the form of the DWM (Desktop Window Manager) and new API set called Windows Presentation Foundation. In Windows XP, nearly all our improvements had to be done by working with a hodgepodge of APIs ranging from GDI, GDI+, DirectX, custom systems, etc. This resulted in software that would work incredibly fast and effective for some people...and horribly for others based on what video card they had, which version of the driver they had, etc. But with Windows Vista, once the video card companies start accelerating the Windows Presentation Foundation calls and underlying calls uniformly, you'll see a significant performance improvement across the board but more importantly, a consistent improvement as long as you're using a modern video card.
Object Desktop users will be the first to be able to alter that Windows Vista looks like with WindowBlinds 5.5 BETA which comes out the week of November 12th. The first goal of WindowBlinds on Vista is to get existing WindowBlinds visual styles working on Vista which took some doing (since they were made with Windows XP in mind). We also wanted to open the door to the thousands of users who made MSStyles for Windows XP. Object Desktop users, via SkinStudio, can also use MSStyles made for Windows XP for Vista. The last two screenshots above are of one of my favorite MSStyles -- Opus 3.0 that is running on Vista now via SkinStudio's translation.
WindowBlinds on Vista doesn't just run on Vista, it runs very well on Vista. Thanks to the DWM, WindowBlinds can do per-pixel translucency very quickly and accurately. When it comes to moving actual windows around, WindowBlinds 5.5 can move windows around faster than windows skinned by Aero (i.e. it's a noticeable difference) thanks to having spent a lot of time learning how to use the DWM.
Once Windows Vista is out generally, we'll concentrate on extending the WindowBlinds format to support Windows Vista specific functionality like blurring and the like. For example, these screenshots you see are Windows XP skins running on Windows Vista. So things like stained-glass toolbar backgrounds and the like are available but will need skins to take advantage. Windows XP skins (WB visual styles and msstyles) will be adapted on the fly to run on Vista with WindowBlinds filling in the missing pieces on-the-fly as intelligently as possible.
For the past few months, Stardock has been working with a number of companies to help put in place everything that is necessary so that eventually every user will have the opportunity to decide how they want their PC to look and feel right out of the box. To that end, Stardock has created a whole new team whose goal is to work with companies, universities, sports teams, you name it to be able to deliver to them a totally cool, custom branded look to Windows Vista and Windows XP. The first one out of the gate is Florida State University and the new Stardock team is called Stardock Design.
Gadgets & Beyond
Stardock learned the hard way that widgets aren't about the technology, they're about the artwork. By the time we got a clue that the prettiness of widgets mattered more than how powerful, robust the underlying technology was, the world had retroactively decided that the Mac was the source of this "innovation". In short, ugly content for DesktopX made it a footnote in the history of widgets and similar content.
On Vista, the technology of DesktopX gives it a second chance to become more mainstream. The upcoming DesktopX 3.5 will allow users to export their creation as Windows Sidebar gadgets! That makes it the world's only third-party way to easily create content for the Sidebar. Right now, creating a sidebar gadget means essentially creating DHTML. And while the sheer guaranteed user base of the Sidebar will make sure that there's plenty of content, it also means a lot of people will quickly discover how limited the Sidebar APIs currently are.
DesktopX, by contrast, has 7 years of development behind it. It essentially becomes a development environment and library for Sidebar gadget creation. The weakness of DesktopX has always been on the content side (relatively few "good looking" content). But it's strength has been on the development side. Unlike other systems which require users to sit in a text editor and put files and folders together, DesktopX allows users to visually create their gadgets live on the desktop.
Moreover, Stardock has developed tools to allow Windows Sidebar gadgets to be developed with .NET and even Windows Presentation Foundation.
Something very very cool but unannounced
We are also working on something very very cool in partnership with Microsoft but can't yet publicly discuss.
More unannounced stuff...
There is also a ton of other things in the pipeline for Object Desktop that won't be available until Windows Vista has been out for a bit. We have Windows Presentation Foundation based gadgets running. We've got tools for optimizing Vista performance and consistency in development. We have some really cool new tools that will make creating gadgets even easier so that skinning and programming are separated.
And many of the biggest things we have in development have to do with researching what the new compositor (VDM) can do. What kinds of new, innovative ways can we help users organize their data, access their programs and view information on the desktops? With the desktop being essentially a 3D surface, all kinds of things become possible (just look at Flip3D).
In addition, IconPackager has been updated to work with Windows Vista
Next we'll be talking about Stardock's other Vista software. Stay tuned!
ObjectDock will be getting a lot of updates to make use of Windows Vista. The recently released Aquarium Desktop 2007 runs well on Vista (and was actaully one of the test apps Microsoft used for optimizing the compositor's support of layered windows). CursorVista is in the works, a new LogonStudio for Vista is in development, and a new boot screen changing program is in development.
Product: Object Desktop (www.objectdesktop.com).
Developer: Stardock Corp. (www.stardock.com).
List Price: $49.95 ($34.95 to renew access to receive new updates after first year).
Content: WinCustomize.com (www.wincustomize.com), deviantART.com (www.deviantart.com), Stardock Design (www.stardockdesign.com).