A look at the year in skinning
With the end of the year upon us, it's time for this year's "The State of Skinning" message. At least in terms of how we see it. For the nearly million new registered users who may be reading this, I should probably provide a little background before going into the meat of this.
Skinning is a general concept of changing the way your computer's interface looks and feels. And in the beginning, there were two websites dedicated to this. One was called Customize.org and the other Skinz.org. When the Dot-Com hype collapsed, the advertising revenue that powered much of the Internet disappeared taking those sites with them. At the time, the only significant general customization site around was the new deviantART.com. So Stardock decided that it couldn't exclusively rely on third party sites for providing the content its software customers wanted. The result was the launch of WinCustomize in March of 2001.
Eventually, Customize.org and Skinz.org returned but under new owners and much about them has changed since then. Other sites have come as well and the problem other skin sites have run into is money. That is, if the website gets too popular, it becomes too expensive to maintain. WinCustomize.com receives a monthly grant from Stardock plus it gets income from people who subscribe to the site. We have remained exclusively customization site. Our friends at deviantART took the path of becoming a general art site. They do have a healthy customization section though that I recommend you check out.
And that's where we are today. So how did this year go?
Well, the year started out with a nasty lawsuit that I think permanently changed the community. Developer TGT Soft filed a lawsuit a week before last Christmas demanding that Stardock allow it to use its IconPackager .iptheme format without having to license it. Needless to say, we weren't too happy about that. We felt it went to a core issue of skinning - if you want to use someone else's "stuff" you need their permission to do it. Several months later the suit was settled out of court and TGT Soft ended up having to license the format for Stardock (the details of which are confidential per the settlement). So it was good news, in our view, for the skinning community.
The GUI Olympics
There was also the GUI Olympics this year. It had Winamp, IconPackager, and WindowBlinds as the 3 sponsored programs. ATI helped out a lot and it was a great success. But there won't ever be another one. Why? Because the US Olympic committee demanded that we not use the phrase Olympics so future ones will have to be called GUI Championships (one lawsuit is enough per year thanks
Triumph of Rainlendar / SysMetrix
2004 was also a year of consolidation. Widgets got talked about a lot and the net effect is that the widget programs gobbled up the user base of a ton of small one purpose programs. There's still a Beatnik section on WinCustomize.com. And it still gets new submissions. But the widget programs (DesktopX, Kapsules, etc.) have taken a bite out of the momentum of specialty programs because they can do so much. But there were two notable exceptions to this - SysMetrix and Rainlendar. SysMetrix lets people build system monitors really easily. And Rainlendar is a really nice skinned calendar program. The widget programs haven't touched them.
Year of the Widget
But while those exceptions have thrived, there's no denying that 2004 was the year of the widget. Konfabulator came out for Windows with much anticipation. DesktopX 2.x made widget creation very easy. Avedesk rose to become a popular program. Samurize (which Stardock hosts) grew in popularity. Kapsules came into existence and made headway (and its developer will be a full time Stardock developer here in Michigan starting in January). You can see what they're all about in the Widget Wars article. But the jury is out whether widgets are going to become mainstream. I can tell you that right now, they're most definitely not mainstream. They're like where skins were in 1999. Consider these numbers: Konfabulator, with a perfect storm of publicity (News.com, slashdot, etc.) has a download count (non-unique users) on its widgets whose mean is around 1500. DesktopX's widgets have a mean download on new stuff of around 500 and the other widget enablers considerably less than that (when there are download counts to measure). By contrast, a typical new WindowBlinds skin can get 2000 downloads in an afternoon. So the widget detractors (i.e. the people who get on me for covering widgets so much) have a point - they've gotten much more publicity than their popularity warrants. That said, I still love em. Still gonna make them. And still think they're the next "big thing" in customization.
So I can say that while it was a close thing in 2001 and 2002, this past year WindowBlinds skins became far more dominant than msstyles in terms of # of new skins made as well as (to the best we can tell) number of active users. There's some good msstyles out there but 2004 wasn't a good year for them. It's as if the msstyle community collectively decided that Longhorn and "Royale" were "good enough". That isn't to say there weren't some good msstyles made -- there were. But they were far far more uncommon than in 2001/2002 (decline started in 2003 and accelerated in 2004). And next year Longhorn will show up and msstyles won't work on there (if there's a "msstyle" format on Longhorn it'll be a new format entirely almost certainly).
So the lynchpin of what makes WinCustomize.com so popular grew in popularity in 2004. Partially sparked by the GUI Olympics, 2004 saw a lot more creativity in skins as well as simply "more" skins over 2003.
Critical mass for Object Desktop
2004 was the year that Object Desktop's user base soared at an astounding rate. Our basic belief on this is that enough of the programs that make up this suite of desktop enhancement utilities matured to the point of being ready for the mass market that people started buying it in higher numbers than before.
Some people really hate commercialism in skinning. But one thing that can't be denied - free things tend to disappear and non-free things tend to keep being developed. There were 3 docks at one point.. All 3 very good programs. All 3 freeware. One of the 3 free ones got a letter from Apple and disappeared. The other stopped being updated. We got a letter too but we have lawyers.
But ObjectDock came out with a "Plus" version this year. And updates for it have continued. In fact, ObjectDock Plus now rivals WindowBlinds in terms of sales popularity. The tabbed dock is here to stay. The free one will continue to be free and continue to be updated. But it's clear from user screenshots that having tabs on the dock is the way to go.
For months it was in development. And this month it finally was launched. The first major overhaul of WinCustomize.com since its original launch back in 2001. The first two weeks were very bumpy. Which is why the official announcement won't go out until this Monday. But things have improved greatly since then and each day new features and tweaks get made to it.
The results have been good. According to Site Meter, the site was averaging around 440,000 visitors per day. Now it's already up to 540,000 visitors per day average. That's 100,000 more visitors per day!
Paying the bills
WinCustomize is still very dependent on that monthly Stardock grant. But WinCustomize subscriptions have made the difference. Without subscribers, there would have been no WinCustomize 2K5 which cost around $90,000 just in IT costs so far. We'll probably have another subscription drive in January to help buy some new servers to help keep the site growing. The way the new site was coded will save us substantially on hardware and enable the site to grow much faster without straining the resources so much.
So what's next?
I can't predict what 2005 will be like. The Longhorn beta will show up in late Spring and we'll know how that impacts skinning. In theory, Longhorn should be a huge windfall for customization. It includes a compositor which means you can do a lot more visual stuff that is hardware accelerated. So that could be very exciting if they keep is open enough for third parties to get in there and expand on what's there.
I think you'll see more premium suites. The demand for these is very high. Natural Desktop (www.naturaldesktop.com) has done incredibly well. So has Aquarium Desktop. So I think you'll see an increase in these kinds of things next year.
I think 2005 will be a very exciting year because of Longhorn bringing interest and the community features on WinCustomize helping people participate in more ways.
Widgets will grow more popular I think. With ObjectBar 2 supporting widgets being embedded in bars, I think that'll have a big impact.
So that's where things stand from our perspective. Tell us what you think is going to be big in 2005.