Should skinning be part of the OS?

Good intentions, negative consequences

Saturday, April 22, 2006 by Draginol | Discussion: Customization Software

If you don't know Kam VedBrat, you should. To a large extent, he is the one who helping make sure that Windows Vista is going to be customizable by users in a real way.  At Microsoft, Kam is responsible for a lot of the UI work on Windows Vista.  And he is constantly under pressure from well-meaning users who argue that Microsoft should "build in" advanced "customization" features.  The problem that those users don't realize is that if Microsoft were to put in too many customization features it would essentially kill off third-party customization and Microsoft is never going to put in the kind of customization that third parties are willing to dedicate themselves to.

Let's explore it though for a moment. Let's put aside the branding issues (the more Microsoft supports customization as part of the OS, the weaker the Windows brand becomes) and let's put aside all the support issues that would rise as users downloaded third party "skins" that weren't compatible with this or that app and called up Microsoft.  Ignoring those two issues (which in themselves are show stoppers), the problem is that the really cool customization apps we've seen over the past few years would never have come out if something even half as good were part of the OS.

The vast - VAST majority of users are happy with Windows as is.  95% of users of Windows XP are using the plain blue "Luna" UI and most of them are probably using whatever wallpaper came with the computer.  Of that remaining 5% all but a small percent are content with changing to the silver or green (okay silver) Luna.  That leaves about 1% of the user base who wants more.  How much should the other 99% be charged so that the 1% can be made happy with customization when there's a proven market of third party developers who are able and willing to devote resources to create something far more advanced than what Microsoft could ever justify?  Whether you use a feature of the OS or not, you're paying for it.  And if only 1% of the userbase would use a feature, why should the other 99% be charged for it?  Sure, in absolute numbers, 1% is huge. But in terms of percentages it's trivial.

But let's say Microsoft bowed in and put in say skinning and custom shells and super-duper icon tweaking and countless other things. What would happen? The third party developers would go off and do something else. There'd be no market left other than maybe some freeware developers tweaking on the outer edges. And would the vocal minority who demanded these features in the first place be satisfied? Probably not. Because they would then be joined by the much larger group of people who didn't see a big deal paying 10 or 20 bucks for a utility that did a bunch of really cool things that aren't being updated or made anymore.  Microsoft would be stuck with the "responsibility" of supporting and placating those users. And for what? What's the business case? Would those vocal users not have bought Windows? Not have upgraded? Of course they would. 

From Microsoft's perspective, going around adding tons of tweaking features or skinning features to the OS is a lose-lose proposition. They weaken their brand. Increase their support costs. Kill off the ISV market where a lot of innovation on Windows comes from. And they don't sell a single copy more than they would have anyway.

So all users who like customizing the way Windows looks and feels in interesting ways should be glad that Kam VedBrat is the Lead Program Manager for the Windows Client Platform Team.

Reply #1 Saturday, April 22, 2006 6:53 PM
An opinion, the most customization Microsoft should allow would be colorization as it was availible in Win98. If users see that Windows can be customized, it would bring more intrest to app's that do far more than just recolor the titlebar. This could bring even more than the 5% that don't like "Luna Blue" into the desktop customization community.
Reply #2 Saturday, April 22, 2006 6:56 PM
I would have to say yes and no.

No to user-created skins. That would introduce possible instabilities. I don't know how Stardock did it, but I know it took them years.

Yes to basic skinnable package. You get a few nice skins and some options like colors. If you want more, go to third party. Of course, the 99% of customers, corporate or not, won't.
Reply #3 Saturday, April 22, 2006 7:18 PM
I definitely want customization. I tend to think that MS products are a little too "vanilla".

I agree that the consumer is best serve by third party software in terms of quality/selection and innovation.

I think a small dose like the 3 different themes that come with XP is necessary in a business environment where you need to have some consistency.
I've had people try to use my system when I'm out of the office traveling or sick and now no one will go near it (including my IT guy) because they can't even figure out where to start (no taskbar) but in the CAD room it's important to keep things consistent so that the operators/designers can collaborate on big projects. In this case a fully customizable OS would cause problems.
Reply #4 Saturday, April 22, 2006 7:21 PM

Ah....Yes and No.

The OS should have the capacity to be 'yes'.

The OS, if pre-skinned should not restrict 3rd party proggies from also doing 'no'....

Reply #5 Saturday, April 22, 2006 9:57 PM

The OS, if pre-skinned should not restrict 3rd party proggies from also doing so

I agree with this.

I would like to see Microsoft include the following abilities for all users:

1 - Users are able to set the desktop icons to any size (independent of the explorer icons), and to set them to "No Labels" and "No Shortcut Overlay".

2 - Users are able to color the shell (including gradients) and/or select a theme style.

3 - A wallpaper engine allowing desktop background changing with a timing interval control (anywhere from "0" static, and say every 30 seconds to every 3 months).

Outside of those customization options, I believe the balance should be left for third-party companies to develop, with the obvious requirement of not compromising the system security.

Reply #6 Saturday, April 22, 2006 10:35 PM
il stick with Stardock doing the GUI enhancements....
Reply #7 Monday, May 1, 2006 2:42 PM
Dude,nice article,but it's only for the moment.
I mean,there will only be a temporary loss for thid party's because it's the same as eating steak every day.
ANYONE will get tired(did I spel this right?)of seeing the same theme every day.So what if Vista comes with more than one theme.They are,nevertheless,limited.
Skiners everywhere will only have a more challenging job to do.
I think it's actually a good thing,because we will see an explosion in Windows customization,with skins,docs icons and all that stuff,far exceeding the cool boundry.
And to top it off,guess who's gona be right smak in the center of atention?
None other than
Reply #8 Monday, May 1, 2006 2:56 PM
Ahh, my first post

I would think that adding a feature to the OS for the ability to alter the desktop and borders, along with the way pages and icons with the textures and shadings of colors, etc... Other than that repetitive look offered at this time, that has become so redundant, would be an attribute to the way Windows dresses its product. Just a taste of what can be is all that's needed. Then send the consumer on to the site where they can aquire more....quality...or build their own programs.

What do you think?


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