My editorial on where skinning has been and is going
Wednesday, March 07, 2007 by Frogboy | Discussion: OS Customization
It's been awhile since I've done one of these but this is certainly a pivotal year in skinning. The term "skinning" has really expanded in what it means. In the beginning, it simply meant changing the graphical elements of an application (such as Winamp) or of a character in a computer game (like Quake).
Today, skinning is loosely used to describe customizing in general. From phones, to PDAs, to computer caess, skinning has become an all purpose term. Heck, I read on a car forum somoneone "skinning" their car interior. But for our purposes, we're going to stick with customizing the user experience of personal computers (primarily PC and Macintosh). This article will give a head's up on where I think, in my highly biased way, things stand and where I think they're going.
Before we begin, I should probably introduce myself since according to Google Analytics, 93% of February's unique visitors were first time visitors. My name is Brad Wardell. I run a PC software company called Stardock which makes a set of utilities for Microsoft Windows that allows users and companies to change the way their computer looks and feels.
Much of the software we make is free. Some of it isn't. But as you can imagine, we are very into skinning and watch carefully its trends.
The Community: Who are we?
In the case of WinCustomize.com, we get over 2 million unique visitors monthly according to Google analytics. We've used other measurements in the past that gave higher results but we have a higher degree in confidence in Google's numbers. Past numbers have tended to double-count visitors so we would get counts of over 20 million visitors per month. By that measurement, we're now at over 40 million visitors. But we really are interested in unique visitors for our purposes.
When we first started using Google analytics this past July for measuring traffic, we were getting around 1.7 million visitors each month (even though July has 3 more days than February). So traffic is definitely up (but it usually goes up in the Winter anyway so we won't be able to measure whether it's truly growing significantly until we've had a full year on Google analytics).
But what people in the community really want to know, how many people are really in our community? For instance in February, of that 2.1 million or so visitors, 1.6 million people came once and never returned. Maybe they found us through a search engine or link. The real question therefore are the number of people who came back over and over. Say, more than 9 times in a given month. That number is 361,000 or so.
Okay, then how many different people visit WinCustomize say on average 4 or more times each day? The true hard core? That number is around 63,000.
And it is that number that we have to be very conscious of. When we enforce a site policy or create a new one, we try to keep the vocal regulars in mind, but we have to also try to think how the 63,000 people who visit the site several times each day but just don't post but are reading the comments and forums.
What's not commonly known is that the comments on a given skin are read a lot. The analytics data indicates that skins with a lot of comments will get a lot of repeat visitors who don't download the skin. Which implies strongly they're reading the comments.
Of the couple hundred people who regularly post in the forums and such, there's literally 62,000+ people lurking. This is probably something that's always been true on the Internet but just wasn't able to be measured.
The Community: Where is it going?
A long time ago when the first skinning sites (Customize.org and Skinz.org) came into being it was a relatively small group. I remember hanging out on those sites and you literally knew every skinner and sometimes every forum user. I'd chit chat with Doreen or craeonics or Shoggot or Mian or Toasty and any number of other people with interesting handles. And if a skin got a hundred downloads in a single day, it was a big deal. I remember thinking about a skin that got 500 downloads and saying "Wow, that's more people than were in my high school class!"
Today, thousands of skins, themes, icons, wallpapers, gadgets, widgets, etc. are made each week and submitted to various places. The most popular ones can see tens of thousands of downloads in a day or two.
The people making the skins are from all over the world. It has gotten even more diverse. In the GUI Championships, skinners from China dominated for instance. It's truly an international phenomenon.
Of course, this has some consequences. If a major chunk of the new skinners speak a non-English language as their first language, it changes the dynamics considerably in terms of written interaction of the community.
It's not that there's fewer English speaking people getting into skinning, it's just that it's gotten so much bigger. You've got the aforementioned Chinese skinners, you've got Japanese skinners (WindowBlinds, DesktopX, IconPackager, etc. are all sold in Japan at retail in Japanese -- and sell very well), as well as from Europe, South America, Australia and elsewhere.
The Tools of Skinning
Windows Vista will be a difficult transition. The more we get into it, the tougher it's going to be for us and we're paid to do it. For the freeware authors and hobbyist developers, you're going to see some die off as well as new programs being made. So let's talk about this:
Big fish eats medium fish eats small fish
Every once in awhile you'll see some users argue that they wish the OS vendor (Apple or Microsoft typically) "build skinning into the OS 'natively'". They think that if the OS vendor develops it and bundles it with the OS that it will, by magic, be better.
In reality, what happens is that it kills off the specialists. Once upon a time, there were two programs called DesktopX on the PC and Konfabulator on the Mac. Apple included Dashboard with the Mac. Then Yahoo bought Konfabulator. And despite Yahoo's massive traffic and the re-christened Yahoo Widgets being cross-platform, the "widgets" over on Yahoo typically only get a couple thousand downloads.
Meanwhile, on Windows, Microsoft has included the Sidebar. Will Microsoft support the Sidebar any better than Apple has supported (or not) Dashboard? It's hard to say. But the effect in both cases has been devastating to the world of gadgets and widgets. Over at Yahoo, only 7 new widgets were released between February 21 and March 2. That's less than one per day. Not that the makers of DesktopX (Stardock) can crow. Only 15 widgets were made in that same period for it and 6 of them were weather widgets and they get even fewer downloads.
But then again, Konfabulator and DesktopX pretty much wiped out the mini-skinnable application universe. Before their were widgets, there were tons of little applications that were skinnable. Rainmeter and Rainlendar have survived along with a few others. But in general, the specialist skinnable applets died as widgets became popular
Side note: Rainmeter is actually thriving -- it got 11 new skins for it in the same period mentioned above and they don't exactly have Yahoo's clout (kudos to Rainy!).
Meanwhile, I'd tell you how well Microsoft's Gadgets are doing on MicrosoftGadgets.com but their gallery doesn't display things like dates with the submission but Apple's getting around 50 widgets a week of..various quality (but don't display the # of downloads).
I guess one thing I feel safe in saying that there's only one thing worse for people who like skinning than the OS vendor including it as part of the OS and that is the OS vendor also providing the site to get more content. Oye.
- Dashboard Widgets (Apple) (about as sterile as it gets -- no ratings, comments, download numbers, or anything. Take your stuff and go)
- Microsoft's Gadget Gallery (Microsoft Live) (I'm in hell, but at least the actual individual items let users comment and rate them once you manage to sift through the site)
- Yahoo Widget Gallery (Yahoo) (The Konfabulator design lives on - still the best looking gallery with lots of easy to use features on the net. Arlo Rose is still the best web designer in the world IMO)
- DesktopX Widget Gallery (Stardock) (not as pretty as Konfabulator's IMO but you make the call).
The lesson learned, don't hope the OS vendor includes it. Or you may end up one of those people still looking for Active Desktop content (and if they do include it, hope they don't try to be the place to get more stuff).
So where do things stand with the applications?
The GUI Changer Status
On the GUI Skinning site, Windows XP still has two basic ways to skin it.
Option #1 remains that you can use a program that hacks Microsoft's built in skinning engine to allow users to use unsigned msstyles which has the advantage of generally having equal compatibility to what Windows XP's skin gets assuming the skin is well made but the disadvantage that you've had to hack your system files and hope Microsoft doesn't update the OS and break what you've done.
I'm personally still a grump about the uxtheme patchers because the most vocal advocates were so full of..crap about what they were doing using terms like "native" and trying to get people to ignore the fact that they were basically patching out digital signing protection and then use patched luna.msstyles files that were renamed. It was only one step above redistributing user.exe files back in the Windows 3.1 days IMO. But it works decently as long as you're not a casual user. It was the ones trying to make money doing this that (again IMO) gave capitalism a bad name -- it's like paying someone to make a CD crack for your favorite game and having them imply they also made the game.
Option #2 is that you can get a program that has its own skinning engine to change the look of Windows. Pre-XP, there were several of these but Windows XP killed off all but one -- WindowBlinds which, at the risk of letting my bias shows, is absolutely superior to patching uxtheme at this point in terms of memory use, performance, and quality. It's main downside remains that poorly designed skins (and WindowBlinds skins will let the skinner hang themselves) can cause problems.
In my opinion, it really took until WindowBlinds 5 to put away the uxtheme patchers. There's still the zealots who aren't aware that you can use .msstyles with WindowBlinds by converting them via SkinStudio and hence say "I don't like WindowBlinds skins". But overall, I feel safe in saying that the GUI skinning wars on XP are pretty much settled.
On Windows Vista, things are a bit more in flux. On Vista, if you are willing to patch several files, you can then resource hack the binary .msstyles file to change things since the Start button. So far, the results are nothing like they were on XP. You're talking just replacing individual graphic items.
WindowBlinds on Vista is working but it will probably take awhile to nail down all the issues since Vista itself currently has issues. I suspect a lot of people are waiting for SP1 on Vista and for the video drivers to get updated. I'm going to write about my own Vista experiences soon. The short story is that some of my machines have Vista but my main "gotta get work absolutely done on" machines remain XP. I suspect this will change in the coming weeks as issues in Vista and in third party software get resolved.
But that doesn't mean someone else won't come up with something. Remember, before Windows XP, there were several independent GUI skinning programs. Now that the uxtheme/msstyles thing on Vista really isn't practical, it might open the door for others to try to develop their own GUI skinning programs again. Who knows.
And if I haven't mentioned it before, UAC is incredibly annoying.
Shells are programs that can replace the entire desktop interface. The shell Windows comes with is called "Explorer". There have traditionally been three major ones out there -- Litestep, Talisman, and Aston. I realize there are others out there but these are the three biggies as far as I know.
As far as I know, Aston doesn't support Windows Vista yet (at least according to their page). The last Talisman update was in October and doesn't officially support Windows Vista either according to their page. But that doesn't mean they won't work on Vista in the future. Vista is still new.
The last, Litestep, seems to have stopped development. I'm not sure what it's status is. For awhile, replacing Explorer with a new shell was a pretty popular thing. There were shell replacements such as Hoverdesk, GeoShell, and numerous others that were very promising. Windows XP took out some of them as Explorer got "decent" enough and I have a feeling that Windows Vista may finish the job for all but the most niche uses (that new search in the Start menu is very nice in Vista)
But your mileage may vary. If someone has more up to date news and info, please feel free to comment.
Changing icons is something that has gotten more popular and yet fewer and fewer programs actually do it.
I hope people will forgive me if I say that at this point, Stardock's IconPackager is the defacto standard in this. If there's another way to change all the icons on Windows Vista in one swoop I don't know of it other than IconPackager.
But the news on Vista isn't completely rosey:
Look carefully at this screenshot and weep. Because Windows Vista has a new type of folder called "Live Folders". It also adds a bunch of new folders types that are very prominent:
Check out closely this screenshot above. Windows Vista folders automatically will show what's in the folder. Here, let's zoom in on those folders:
Do you see what I'm getting at? ALL (as in 100%) of existing icons created in the past decade that attempt to change the folders will no longer work because Live Folder icons replace the traditional folder because these folders are generated dynamically.
In addition, there's tons of new icons (those greenish ones) that no icon package out there currently replaces. In time, IconPackager will get better at mapping them out. But that won't change that there's simply some new ones (Saved Games, Searches, Contacts).
And see the ones that look too small? Icons that don't support 256x256 end up looking small like you see the ones above that are small. Which means LOTS more work for icon artists (remember when 32x32 sized icons were enough?). To put things in perspective, 256x256 is about the full screen resolution of a Commodore 64. You're now talking about some serious artwork.
And even then, what about those live folders? So icon packages will have to be updated to handle live folders.
IconPackager 3.2 will include icon packages that support all the new stuff on Vista (thanks to Alexandrie and Treetog who have both joined Stardock full-time this year).
Above is an icon package Treetog recently released that supports Vista.
It'll be very interesting to see how this problem is resolved. Will skin authors update their icon packages? Or will we end up having to have some sort of system where there is some sort of icon packages..packages (where users can apply the base icon package and then a vista updated package created by someone else). Who knows what will happen there. But I can say without the live icon folder icons, an applied icon package doesn't seem the same to me.
And any serious icon changing utility has to support this stuff and I can say, it's non-trivial to do this kind of thing without resorting to some ugly hacking (did I mention that dynamic folders are dynamically generated)?.
Logons remain very popular. On Windows XP there are a number of different ways to change your logon screen. Stardock makes LogonStudio which we made because people were literally distributing logonui.exe's around (In America, that's called piracy).
On Windows Vista, LogonStudio Vista is out and it's pretty straight forward so far. You can't really design your own logon yet like you can on XP. There just haven't been enough resources available to go and decipher Microsoft's cryptic "format" for their logon screens. And we also don't know the repercussions if we did (as in, we don't want to have a situation where people could hose their systems with a logon screen).
For Windows Vista Ultimate users, obviously one big new addition that has made quite a splash has been animated wallpapers which we call .Dream files. Microsoft includes a Windows Vista Ultimate Extra called Windows DreamScene. For Ultimate users, Stardock has developed DeskScapes which extends that Ultimate Extra to support .dreams which can do all kinds of amazing things as animated wallpaper.
I think as time goes on, animated wallpapers may turn out to be the "biggest new" thing to come to skinning in a long time. It's something that a lot of people can get into that has a very large impact. And the early results have been surprising - what many (myself included) skeptically thought might be tacky and distracting has been done in a way that is classy and interesting. I think Dreams are here to stay.
The Mainstreaming of skinning
A few years ago, pioneering skinners got together and started Pixtudio and Skinplant and started making premium skins. This led others to start making skins professionally for movie studios and major corporations.
In the past year, Stardock has brought in much of the talent from Pixtudio and SkinPlant to form Stardock Design. In just a few months, two huge projects were won from Microsoft and Dell.
For Microsoft, the aforementioned work to create animated wallpapers for Windows DreamScene was launched and completed.
And for Dell, the single largest skinning initiative in history. By teaming up with colleges, sports teams, and more, end users have started to be able to purchase themed desktops of their favorite teams.
You'll be hearing a lot more about this as the year progresses and this project really starts to ramp up. By combining the talents of the top skinners into a single organization, skinning is about to come to "the masses" in a huge way. Not bad for something that's just got started
The Skinning sites
The skinning community is no longer one tight monolithic group. It has long since splintered into all kinds of forms.
Our friends at deviantART still support skinning but the site has gone on to focus on art in general and become immensely successful in that endeavor.
Some of the classic sites of old have gone down. Others exist on seemingly endless life support. But others, like Customize.org are on the verge of a revolution of new technology and improvements that I think will inspire other sites (including WinCustomize.com) to improve further. SkinBase continues forward with a tightknit community (for users who find WinCustomize "too big" I highly recommend Skinbase, it's a friendly place with lots of good features and a good loyal community of regulars).
As for WinCustomize, this is the year that it and Stardock make good on repairing the failings of 2006 that were previously discussed. The new site is a good first step but there's much more work to be done. This is, in many respects, the most exciting year in skinning ever and the community's growth and activity indicates that many people agree with that assessment.
The same trends we've seen previously continue to evolve. Skinning, which started out as a niche in which people would ask "Why would you want to do that?" gets more mainstream.
At the same time, Windows Vista, even more than XP before it, is culling skinning applications by breaking them outright. Will programs that were on life support get one last surge? Or will they go the way of the eFX's and Chromas or Illumination that were broken by the OS and never updated again and faded.
Community interaction will largely come from the skinning sites in the community implementing increasingly better and more powerful tools to allow for people to collaborate together. You already see a bit of this now but I think you'll see more and more of this over time.
Not everything is rosey. I think 2007 will be a rough year. With Windows Vista, you're going to have a lot of time spent just getting things working at all on them. The time spent getting stuff working will be time not spent making things work better or adding new stuff. And we don't know yet how hard Vista will be for getting stuff to work well. Still, I'm pretty excited about the horizons.
Overall, I haven't been this excited about skinning in a long time. Excited enough anyway to write this novella that I hope you've found interesting and useful!