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Working With Avalon Today: Getting Started With XAML

A quick look at XAML

Monday, December 27, 2004 by Frogboy | Discussion: Software Development

Longhorn may not be here yet but you can start learning about XAML now.  XAML is a new mark-up language that Microsoft is developing that allows users to easily create user interfaces.

Stardock plans to incorporate XAML into DesktopX at some point to combine its power with DesktopX's native easy of development.  In the meantime, check out this article on it.

(update) External link fixed.

Why would you use WindowBlinds - An MSStyle to WindowBlinds porter manifest.

If you're an msstyles author you may want to read it.

Monday, December 27, 2004 by Adam Najmanowicz | Discussion: Conversions

Very important: Recoloring/converting or altering icons or skins does not change the original author's copyright, nor does it make such skin yours! If you recolor/convert or alter a skin or icon that has not been made by yourself you may not upload or share the modified skin or icon without the original author's permission.

Working on enhancing the porting filter in the most recent months I've been working with various msstyles authors (and a lot of them either ported or allowed to port their msstyles). And almost always the first question that arises is - "What's the point? I can use Windows XP built in theming after all. What does it give me to release my style as a WindowBlinds skin?"

  1. WindowBlinds skins non-theme aware programs so all of Windows would have the style, not just theme aware ones.
  2. Users can mix and match toolbar and progress animations with it (yes there are other ways to do this but nothing as easy as WindowBlinds).
  3. You can change its color easily on the fly.
  4. For most people, it'll run significantly (i.e. noticeably) faster. Hardware acceleration!
  5. You can assign other mouse button operations to the title bar.
  6. You can easily add buttons that enhance the theme's functionality.
  7. You can apply advanced recoloring to it with SkinStudio.
  8. With minimum effort you can enable dropdown menus skinning after conversion.
  9. Setting SkinStudio use "maximum quality" option during conversion will make your menu bar skinned as it was a toolbar.
  10. Ability to integrate the skin with the font (the font is installed automatically as the skin is used). It comes with the skin in one WBA (WindowBlinds zipped skin) so there is no risk the theme will look weird if user forgets to install the font or just skip reading the readme where you advise him/her to.
  11. Ability to associate the skin with the toolbar icons so that they are automatically applied once you start using the skin. Same with Animations if the msstyles contains them as well. No need for them to use Additional programs as Y'Z toolbar or replace system files.
  12. User can set the Visual Style to be used for a single app while having another one fot the whole system.
  13. Users do not have to hack the dlls vital to their system systems functioning. This may not be important for you, but believe me it has raised concern more than once among our customers. That was why actually we decided to make the MSStyles converter. Our customers liked some of the msstyles but didn't want to hack their system files.
  14. On my ssytem (though you may have either confirm or an feel differently) WindowBlinds is more stable than Msstyles. Actually changing msstyles (And I'm changing both of them a lot) kills an application running on my system at least once a 4 changes of a theme. Will it be Firefox(a lot), my Bluetooth stack (more seldom) or my programing IDE(really, really popular at dying). It practically does not happen to WindowBlinds any longer. And being an msstyles author you most probably know very well what I'm talking about.
  15. There is no way you could make an Msstyle that a company like Nintendo, nVidia (or here), Marvel, ATI or Microsoft (or here) would pay you for. Those are just the few themes off a top of my head, but WindowBlinds skinners are making paid themes on a daily basis. The reason why you cannot sell your MSstyle to them is that there is no way for the user to apply the theme in a legitimate way. No - a hack is not legitimate even if some companies sell them). I'm sure you're in it for fun and not for money. That's cool, but making a few bucks now and then doing what you love is really nice, isn't it?

That's just 15 reasons that I think of first when someone asks me "Why WindowBlinds". If you're still undecided just download SkinStudio and you should be able to just double click on your .msstyles file (make sure you unzip it to a directory first) and have it imported in. SkinStudio is a free download that will not expire on you and will allow you to convert msstyles to WindowBlinds and edit your themes indefinitely!

Be aware that even though it's still not perfect (especially the Free version is rather old) there will be a new SkinStudio release right after the New Year (Jan 2005) that will significantly improve upon what it does now. Object Desktop subscribers may already enjoy some of the improvements. More to come!

I used elements of Brad's post from Neowin in my article - thanks for the inspiration Brad.

Wincustomize User Page Focus: Hippy

Monday, December 27, 2004 by joeKnowledge | Discussion: Community

Hippy is one of the greats of the skinning world. If you look at his skinning achievements you can see that he has done some great work. Take a look at the old school stuff like Futurist Yellow:
Futurist Yellow Icon Set

Very nice. It even has a cursor set included with the icons.

But lets not forget the new stuff that had been coming out from Hippy like:


Then there is Skintendo; a WindowBlinds skin. A skin that you just have to see for yourself. Not only that, it has all of these nice wallpapers made by Hippy that just go great with the WindowBlinds skin. Hippy has, actually, a few wallpapers that goes with his skins for WindowBlinds.

Hey, don't forget that Hippy is also one of those guys at Skinplant.com. He joined up with MikeB314 (the other Skinplant guy). They got some skins you might want to take a look at on the site to... EXCLUSIVE!!!!

So enjoy Hippy's wonderful user site. He might blog there once in a while, or upload a skin... maybe an update to on of the oldies...hmmmmm??? (Hidden request for a new update for a WindowBlinds skin... any one will do... as long as its old school ).

This story wasn't supposed to be this long and actually is longer. At the link you can read more about Skintendo and some nice matching cartoon/anime wallpapers to go with it.

Until the next WinCustomize User Page Focus, I'm joeknowledge/joetheblow

What's next for Google?

The coming Microsoft vs. Google battle

Sunday, December 26, 2004 by Frogboy | Discussion: Google

Do you know why we love the computer industry? Because only in the computer industry do we get to have hard core smack downs.  It's one big industry video game where Microsoft has to fight off various "bosses" as it climbs the ladder to tougher and tougher opponents:

Microsoft vs. IBM

Microsoft vs. Netscape

Microsoft vs. AOL

and now..

Microsoft vs. Google

Each time, the opponent is tougher, more seasoned and each time the restraints on Microsoft greater.  And Google is smart.  From the very start Google has been about the smartest, most clever company I've seen on the net. Almost all their ideas are brillian.  Clever search engine. Text ads, you name it, it's all been done with incredible intelligence. 

So can Microsoft's new search engine beat it out? I have my doubts. I've been trying out MSN Search and it doesn't compare at this point.  Here's a simple search: "Brad Wardell".  On MSN Search I get some interview on a gaming site as the # 1 pick. On Google I get my blog page. So whatever algorithm Microsoft is using, it hasn't quite come together yet.

And so far, Google has been benevolent.  The power that Google has is frightening. They could flatten almost any net based business (including ours) just by changing their algorithm a bit to push us off the first page on a number of things. Even as it their use of open directory, which is incredibly outdated, is a source of frustration to us.

So what's next for Google? Check out this article on Technology Review for a very lengthy and thorough analysis...

Industry Watchers: Don't Think Microsoft Is Down for the Count

EU action against Microsoft not the end

Sunday, December 26, 2004 by Frogboy | Discussion: Microsoft

Just because Microsoft has said it will comply immediately with a European Court judge's order to follow specified antitrust remedies doesn't mean life will be a bowl of cherries for Microsoft's partners, developers and even its competitors.

Industry watchers said they will be watching exactly how Microsoft makes good on the court-ordered removal of Windows Media Player from its Windows desktop operating system, and its publishing of communications protocols designed to make Windows better communicate with competitors' products.

Microsoft-Watch.com has a full article on the the repricussions of the EU decision to force Microsoft to pull its Media Player from the base OS. Including this quote:

"Forcing Microsoft to unbundled Windows Media Player is a bad decision for consumers," said Brad Wardell, president and CEO of Stardock Corp., a Windows software developer. "The universal availability of a capable media player as part of the OS enables software developers, consumers, and media professionals to make certain assumptions about what they can put into their software, make use of on a website, or distribute on the Internet."

Wardell said it will be crucial to see what kinds of underlying media technologies and files, rather than simply Windows Media Player itself, Microsoft unbundles from Windows.

"There's a lot of 'stuff' that Windows Media Player includes with it that developers routinely make use of to create things like inter-office radio, media streaming, etc. Developers like us put up .WMV files onto our websites as tutorials about our software because we can assume that Windows XP users have Windows Media Player," Wardell said.

Read the whole thing at Microsoft-Watch.com.

Editorial: That isn't to say that I think Microsoft should be able to toss anything they want into the OS. They are a monopoly. However, the courts need to weigh the pros and cons of these things more carefully. Having a basic ability to play music and video as part of the OS is different than throwing in anti-virus or Internet search.

Will Apple flash iPod rock market?

Apple may be preparing a flash memory version of the iPod

Sunday, December 26, 2004 by Frogboy | Discussion: iPod

Apple appears to be preparing to release a flash memory version of the iPod.  The iPod is a media player device that has historically used micro-hard drives in their devices. The typical iPod has 20 gigabytes of space on it with the mini-iPod having 4 gigabytes (that's what I have).

A flash based iPod would likely make it smaller and lighter.

Apple was also not the first to offer hard-drive-based players when it debuted the first iPod in October 2001, but it now commands the lion's share of that market. In the U.S. retail market, the iPod accounted for more than 80 percent of sales in the 12 months ended this October, according to The NPD Group. That's up from about two-thirds market share in the same period a year ago and a 40 percent share in its first year.

Read the whole thing.

WinCustomize 2K5 Report

10 things for 2005

Thursday, December 23, 2004 by Frogboy | Discussion: Community

 

January 3 is still the official public launching day of WinCustomize 2005 (i.e. the day we actually announce generally that WinCustomize has been re-done).  But obviously, with Christmas almost here and everyone going on vacation, we are getting close to the point where the site is as it will be when it's announced to the rest of the world (a week from this upcoming Monday).

So where do we stand? And what is left to do? 

1) Performance.  We have come a long way there. I think most people would now agree that WC2K5 is much faster than the old site. We just today added compression to more servers. 

There is still more to do on this end though. We need more servers. Our friends at deviantART use 60 servers to run their site. We don't have quite that many servers but we do use an awful lot. And they aren't cheap.  We will probably have a subscription drive next month to help get some more servers for the site.

2) Personal Pages. We just opened it up so that ANY current subscriber or Stardock customer can create their own personal page. Go HERE to create your own personal website.

3) The advocacy system is working now. So what is an advocate? Every time someone goes to your personal site or to one of your skins you get a point.  Non-skinners can become advocates too by RECOMMENDING skins they come across.  You recommend a skin, it shows up in your recommendations tab on your personal page. Then, if you go onto another site and provide a link to that skin, you get a point and the author of the skin gets a point. The same holds true with articles. Here are yesterday's top advocates

4) New Sections. We are going to be adding some new sections next year. The first new section will be Screen Savers.  Now, what about other sections such as Trillian or whatever? Here's the thing, WinCustomize only adds sections to apps that are reasonably popular already. It has to be a mutually beneficial relationship. It is expensive for us to have sections so there has to be a benefit to WinCustomize to have the section.

So the app has to either be really really popular already or it has to have a way of sending users here to get their skins.  Even if the program is fairly popular, we still want them to link to the library we create here so that we're not merely a free marketing channel for some program. We want to bring new users here and expose them to the wonderful world of Windows enhancing.

5) Forums. We really hope you like the new forum system. It is custom-made and probably the most advanced ASP.net forum system out there.  We highly encourage users to promote their new skins and themes in the "New releases" topic of the general forum.

The forums work opposite of those BBS systems other sites have.  In most BBS systems, you have to keep clicking and clicking all over to get to the "newest" stuff of each category.  In our system, the newest stuff floats to the top of the top most category. You can then get more and more specific as you weed down there.  It's a quasi-WinFS type forum system.

Example: A given BBS system might have a forum called "Windows Skinning". You click on that and you see posts for Windows Skinning but then you see some sub-categories called say "WindowBlinds" and "Winamp" and "Media Player".  If you want to know what's hot in there, you have to click on each one.

In our system, if you click on Windows Skinning, all the sub-topics posts will show up there based on last response.  You click on the sub-topics to find out more details on those sub-topics (i.e. things that may have scrolled off the top most forum).  We think this way, while different from other systems, is actually more scaleable as users can simply pick the level of detail they want rather than being overwhelemd (example: We could have a Tutorials->Wallpapers->Photoshop->Faces->Removing Blemishes->Age Lines, a user could simply hang out in the Tutorials->Wallpapers->Photoshop area and see all the Photoshop related tutorials. Or if their interest was purely Removing blemishes from images, they could hang out one level down - much more efficient).

6) Page Views. Since WinCustomize isn't ad-based, its entire system is designed to have fewer #s of clicks. We don't get paid by the page view so we have an incentive to make it easy for you to get to what you want with fewer clicks. Where we do add extra clicks is in the area that puts strain on the database (i.e. showing 50 skins per page or defaulting to showing comments or listing every skin an author has every made on a single page).

7) Moderators. With the site growing, we are going to be approaching people about becoming moderator/evangalists of the forums. They would be in charge of a particular topic on the forum and helping make it a fun place for users. We are just waiting until more moderator tools are developed before proceeding. This site is only possible thanks to the volunteer moderators who work very hard to keep this place going. Without people like Jafo, Paxx, Snowman, MikeB, Koasati, GoodMorphing, just to name a few this site would come to a screeching halt

8) Contests, Goodies, etc. . We have plans to start sending out more goodies, having more contests, etc.  The next contest will start in January and last for 60 days. It will be toolbar icons for WindowBlinds for the toolbar icons area.

9) WinCustomize Subscribers.  For 2005 we will be putting in more effort for WinCustomize subscribers to be able to get additional suites and skins and other goodies.  We also plan to provide more goodies for WinCustomize subscribers and skinners such as sneak previews of videos we plan on doing (video reviews of skins and themes and such). 

We also plan to commission some skins and themes that will only be available to subscribers that will be in the skin library.  If this works out, we'll be able to raise the download cap for non-subscribers from 50 megabytes to 100 megabytes. We're still playing around with this concept. 

10) Site skins, etc.  Yes, they will be coming back.  We plan to provide templates so that users can submit their own site skins to the site eventually but early next year the planet will be to provide roughly 5 different designs. These may only be available to subscribers. But you'll be able to pick between all kinds of different color combinations and looks and feels.

So that's where we're at.  2004 was an exciting year but 2005 looks like it will be even more exciting.  Our overall goal with the site is migrate to a system of rewarding subscribers rather limiting non-subscribers (i.e. we want to raise download caps and provide more features overall to more people).   We also hope to add a lot more sections.  If you are friends with the people at Trillian or any other major skinnable program that you'd like on here, let us know here.  All we require is that the site link to us in a signficiant way so that their users know that their skin library here exists. 

EU Penalties Against Microsoft Upheld

So long Windows Media Player

Wednesday, December 22, 2004 by Frogboy | Discussion: Windows XP

In the not-so-good news for Microsoft category, the EU has upheld the ruling that Windows XP in Europe will not have Windows Media Player.

"The evidence adduced by Microsoft is not sufficient to show that implementation of the remedies imposed by the Commission might cause serious and irreparable damage," the draft Court statement obtained by Reuters said.

Personally, I find this to be a bad move for European consumers. While it's always tempting to stick the giant in the eye, it's not the giant who will suffer in this case. At this stage in OS development it is very handy for both businesses and consumers to assume that the base OS includes video playing and music playing as part of the OS that supports a specific format (WMV in this case on video).

Read the whole article.

So are widgets killing skinnable programs?

The fall of the mini-programs

Wednesday, December 22, 2004 by Frogboy | Discussion: Customization Software

Long before widgets, in the sense that we know them today, existed there was skinning. A skin is a collection of graphics designed to replace the user interface of a particular program. The first major skinnable program was Winamp.  Skinnable programs became very popular for awhile.

During that time, we saw small, skinnable programs come out. These programs did one thing but they were skinnable.  Programs like Colorpad, Beatnik, Boxnote, Coolplayer, eNotes, EZPop, SkinCalc, XXCalc, Kewlpad, and countless other programs all let users have skinnable programs that did a small but specific thing.

And then came the widgets. Programs like DesktopX and Konfabulator came along. They have the advantage of usually using less overhead than a stand alone program does on a given widget as well being able to provide the functionality of all the skinnable stand-alone programs.

Widgets, currently, do have one downside - it is hard for end users to customize the way they look.  Programs like XXCalc may be able to do only one thing but users could then apply dozens of skins for them.  By contrast, today's widget programs are somewhat harder to make new skins for since each widget is its own thing. 

Regardless of the respective merits, what we have seen is a decline in the # of new skinnable stand-alone programs. The widget enabling programs seem to have taken much of the momentum away from these programs.  Programs like WindowBlinds, which can skin every standard GUI'd application on the computer, probably didn't help them either.

Which brings us to where we're at - widgets or custom mini-programs? Are we better off with widgets or skinnable mini-programs?

Here are some examples (some screenshots courtesy of Customize.org) -- you be the judge:

Mini Program

DesktopX equivalent

Konfabulator

N/A


(coolplayer)


(skincalc)


 


(ezpop)

N/A


 

Don't judge any of the 3 by the screenshots since I mainly just went and found ones that I thought looked nice but your tastes may vary. The point is to show that for every popular stand-alone skinnable program there is usually some sort of widget equivalent to them.  Now whether the widget equivalent is better is a matter of debate.

There very well could be other reasons why we have seen stand-alone skinnable programs become less popular. And there are notable exceptions - Rainlendar (a skinnable calendar) and SysMetrix (a skinnable system resource meter) are very popular. 

Let us know what you think either way.

Is alpha transparency worth it?

What about vector graphics?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004 by Thomas Thomassen | Discussion: OS Customization

I'm seeing that the wish for alpha transparent skinning is increasing. d3adz0mbie recently wrote an article where he pushes on for alpha transparency because it'd be an easy solution to get new quality skins. While I'd very much like to see alpha transparency into WB I am not sure it'll automatically boost the quality of skins. I'd think that most likely we'll see a large amount of OSX skins with that title bar finally transparent, and Longhorn skins with transparent frames. Then a few refurbishing of existing skins to feature anti aliased edges and shadows. (Being able to integrate shadows into skins without WFX is another argument to get alpha transparancy into WB.)
However, do we really want the SD developers to spend much time and effort into forcing alpha transparancy into XP (and 2000?) when the next version in the Windows series codenamed Longhorn most likely allow this with allot less effort? True, Longhorn isn't expected until the end of 2006, but how long will it take to have it working without suffercating the computer? I personally would like to see other more usable features getting more attention. But of course, if it's something that doesn't take too much effort then by all means; Bring it on!

There is something I'd really like to see from Stardock. Something I wish for more than alpha transparancy. And that is support for vector graphics. Imagine being able to scale and stretch you graphics without any loss of quality. And in most cases the file sizes will be smaller as well. Imagine that a widget is a little bit too big for your taste; solution: just scale it up and it still looks smooth and crisp. It just appears to be that making a huge bitmap and then have the render engine scale it down is a bit of waste of resources and an awkward way to do it.
I'd like to see vector graphic handling in most of Stardock programs as I believe it'd allow for better individual control of the GUI. The ultimate would be able to scale up or down any window, but I don't see this happening until Longhorn. (Yes, I've seen the tiling feature in WFX, but it's not quite there.) I have have more faith in vector graphics to give skins a quality boost than simply alpha transparent window frames.

What's your thoughts?

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