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Skinning: Computer Interface Customization
April 17, 2012 1:22 PM   Subscribe

Many people are familiar with computer case modifications, thanks to the photogenic nature of mods. On the software side, most operating systems feature some potential for customization, though this is often limited to tweaking the colors and sounds. For some, this isn't enough. Enter "skinning," the casual term for interface customization. To a degree, the history of the media player Winamp (YT, 7:03; transcript with pictures) mirrors the history of skinning. From a version 0.2, a visually dull app in June 1997, to easy user customization in version 2 in September 1998, and the complexly customizable Winamp3 in August 2002. Wired captured something of the excitement at its peak in an article from 2000, before computing began shifting to more closed devices. Now approaching a post-WIMP (windows, icons, menus and a pointer) era, where skinning is done with alternative launchers. But for those still using traditional computers of one sort or another, it's not too late to modify your interface.

The very first version of Winamp, 0.2, was visually uninteresting. By version 0.92, some of the well-known dark grey interface was used, but the main player wasn't fully skinned until version 1.0. This unique GUI made the application stand out from most of the other applications running on Windows at the time. But modifying the appearance of the program required use of a resource editor. This process was streamlined in version 2, with the ability to load custom skins. In 2002, Winamp3 came out, and with it, the capability to completely reorganize the GUI with a scripting language.

When people realized they could modify the look of Winamp, websites popped up with pre-customized Winamp applications to download. As Winamp became more easily customizable and other applications became skinnable, those basic sites were replaced with skinning sites, not only collections of skins, but also communities. Members could upload skins for well over 100 different applications, and their work could be rated and critiqued by others, along with discussion forums and news posts on new and upgraded skinnable applications. Skinners would make complete suites of skins, carrying over the same design aesthetic to multiple programs. Digital zines were put together, discussing the progression applications and the skinners as artists.

Skinning is older than Winamp. "Skins" was first used to describe a user-customizable software software for Quake in 1996, when the game allowed users to apply new "skins" to their characters. Before "skinning" was a term, Amiga programmers and users had various routes for customizing their GUI, including Magic User Interface. Microsoft's OSes from the similar eras had more limited customization potential, providing the the option to change a few colors. In the years to follow, Windows wouldn't give users too much more control without messing around in the registry, but a creative individual made a little app, 3DCC, to tweak every Windows UI color, as seen in this video.

In the late 1990s, some apps went beyond tweaking Windows colors, and tackled skinning the Windows GUI. One of the first, if not the first, was eFX, though the program stalled at version 0.40. Illumination brought the world of Enlightment themes over from the X Windows System to MS Windows, and later branched out into early KDE themes. WindowBlinds, Stardock product, was the first commercial player to thrive in the world of Windows skinning. Stardock's skinning history went back to Object Desktop on IBM's OS/2, and WindowBlinds one of the few Windows skinners to survive the transition from Windows 98 to XP.

In Windows XP, Microsoft tried to include some of the excitement behind interface customization with visual styles. Except Microsoft locked users out. msstyles files had to be verified to be installed, or you had to patch the UXTheme.dll file to allow user-made visual styles. Vista had a similar lock-out for modifying visual styles, and Lifehacker put together a how-to for opening up XP and Vista to 3rd party themes.

But if skinning Windows still wasn't enough, there were alternative shells that allowed users to further modify their desktop environment. Similar in approach to X Window Systems for *nix, except MS Windows shells are generally less robust. Still, they provided for further customization, and a chance to confuse your friends and family if they tried to use your computer and weren't greeted with the usual desktop environment.

As Windows XP marked a major shift in Windows customizability, options to customize the Windows 8 "Metro" tiles interface are further limited. Smartphones, tablets, and touch-based computing are generally more restrictive still, limiting GUI customization to hardware distributors, or those who take the risk of jailbreaking or rooting their devices. Even though this seems like the future of computing, photo skins for Winamp 2.x are still being made, which makes some sense as Winamp 2.95 is the most popular version on Old Versions.com.


If you want to tweak your GUI, here are some more resources:

Basic Customization
Icons
Icon Archive is one of the longest running archives of high quality icons, from functional to weird
Icon Factory has a great collection of freeware icons
Pixelgirl Presents - Icons -- fun and whimsical icons, available for Mac and (usually) PC

Sounds
Mac OS Classic Sound Pack, with original AIFF sounds, plus WAVs and M4R (AAC for iPhone)
Classic Apple Start-up and Crash Sounds, available for individual download, in AIFF
Windows Classic Sounds, collected from Windows 3 through Windows 2000

Skinning and customizing community sites
* Customize.org is still active, though a shadow of its former glory
* Skinz.org is even sadder, with most of the new updates being unimpressive wallpaper uploads, and ads take up the body of the page, but there are links to skins on the left-hand side of the site.
* Skinbase.org is similar to Skinz: same sort of watered down content, but less cluttered appearance
* Virtual Plastic.net is stranded in 2008 with lots of dead links, and those programs that you can download may not play nicely with newer versions of Windows, but the site hasn't changed into a wallpaper emporium

Archive.org snapshots of deceased skinning community sites, for nostalgia
* Deskmod.com
* Desktopian.org


Customization for Mac systems
* Mac GUI downloads, collecting an array of apps, icons and tweaks
* OS X Daily's Customize category, with a range of posts on programs and tweaks
* Mac|Life: How to Customize OS X Lion with Lion Designer (02/10/2012)
* Macworld: Customize the OS X workspace (2009)
* GigaOm: 15 OS X Customization Resources (2007)
* Visage: Customize Mac OS X (trialware app)
* Pre-OS X: Appearance Manager (Wikipedia) and Kaleidoscope, a shareware schemes manager that went above and beyond what the native Appearance Manager could do.

A bit more history on resource hacking
Early FOXSCAPE Theme History - one of the rare references to early Winamp skinning via resource hacking, related to Foxscape, an effort to make Firefox look like Netscape 4.x, Netscape 6+ "Classic" theme, Mozilla Suite M18+, and SeaMonkey 1.x "Classic" theme running on Windows
posted by filthy light thief (70 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite

 
This must be the first MF post to mention WindowBlinds ... I love it! That Wired article is a trip back.

The only "skins" I use are for Firefox (LittleFox) and QCD (Blip).
posted by mrgrimm at 1:28 PM on April 17, 2012


Oh right, Firefox "personas". That was what kicked off my idea for this post in the first place. I remember when Firefox was touting their new feature as if it were revolutionary, and I smirked. I was deep in GUI customization, running GeoShell and changing window shading colors with 3DCC. I haven't actually skinned anything beyond Winamp in years now.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:34 PM on April 17, 2012


The skinning era was a dark, dark time for computers. I am so thankful that there isn't much of this going on in modern stuff.

That said, I do use one "skin," in that I make the OSX dock into 2d, which I think looks really nice.

Run in a terminal:
defaults write com.apple.dock no-glass -bool true

Change to false to turn it off, but why would you?
posted by Threeway Handshake at 1:36 PM on April 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


Oh god, I had like a hundred WinAmp skins back in the day.
posted by The Whelk at 1:39 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


More:
* 21 Ways to Customize Windows 7, all within the confines of native Win7 (so they're pretty tame).
* 25+ Best Free Tools to Customize Windows 7 goes deeper, but there's a chance you can muck something up.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:40 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is partially why I'm so torn between getting an Android phone vs. an iPhone or Windows phone. I have no problem with modding my PC all to hell - PCs are made to be tinkered with. But I want reliability with a phone.

I've worked with both Android and iPhones. The initial Android interface was clunky and I didn't like using it as a PHONE, but I was able to mod how it worked (without jailbreaking!) such that it was a pure joy to use AS A PHONE. Except for when it crashed. Or the interface updated and unloaded itself. Or some other buggy thing happened. And it happened enough to piss me off.

The iPhone just worked, but I'm not thrilled with the phone and contact interface. And I can't do anything about it. And for me, a smart phone needs to be a phone first.
posted by charred husk at 1:40 PM on April 17, 2012


Years ago, I got really into GUI modification using LiteStep - one of the alternate shells listed on that Wikipedia page. It was wonderful, you could utterly change the way your system looked using text files and a handful of (in my case) atrociously-designed GIFs.

I switched back to the Mac a couple of years ago and there's little I miss about the Windows experience, but I still remember how much fun it was to muck about with things like gestures and hidden launchers. It felt like a way to make really make my computer mine, and not just the umpteenth desktop using those awful Windows XP Barney colours.
posted by ZaphodB at 1:41 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Those of us participating in the year of linux on the desktop made our UI customizing home at themes.freshmeat.net.

Gnome Look, KDE Look, and Box Look continue to carry the torch, but anyone looking for Enlightenment 16 themes is on their own.
posted by helicomatic at 1:42 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Gobs more from Door 2 Windows (cheesy name, lots of fun little things to tweak).
posted by filthy light thief at 1:42 PM on April 17, 2012


I used a skin once but I got better.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:45 PM on April 17, 2012


Good post. The term "skinning" sounds so Web 2.0, but I am all for customizing UIs.

I actually use Objectdock to launch apps on my HTPC, with my desktop clean of icons and the Windows 7 taskbar hidden. It's easier to navigate when you're sitting across the room. I futzed with Samurize for a while but got lazy. That's about my limit these days. I'm getting boring in my old age.
posted by jabberjaw at 1:46 PM on April 17, 2012


Awesome post! It's fun to read even if you don't want to tweak anything or add skins. Just learning about the possibilities is fun.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:00 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have great memories of reworking my high school boyfriend's
LiteStep theme for myself, running Windows 95 and 98SE in the early 2000s because I thought it was cool to use old versions. I use Ubuntu these days and don't have much time to customise it, but now that you mention it, I miss skins. They were so easy to mess around with and (at least as a teenager) felt very rewarding. In fact, LiteStep was probably a big step on the way to Linux for me.

I'm all for a more creative computing experience.
posted by snorkmaiden at 2:06 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I used to love to change the skins on Winamp - we designed skins based off of Ukiyo-e - they were so beautiful.
posted by jb at 2:08 PM on April 17, 2012


Before Windows 7 I was all about streamlining things and turning off all the services and special effects so the computer would run as fast as possible. Just a plain blue screen, no themes or skins, everything optimized for performance. I don't have to do that now because the hardware specs are finally high enough, but it's hard resist old habits.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:10 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I also remember Winamp 3 taking about 12 times longer to start whenever you used a custom skin. I put up with that for about a week and then went back to the default, instantly booting version.
posted by straight at 2:15 PM on April 17, 2012


My main UI modification these days is to have Windows 7 set to the Classic theme with the same dark gray buttons as I've had since Windows 98, and a bright green border around the active window. Aero is a lot prettier to look at than Windows XP's Fischer Price theme but for the life of me I just cannot tell which window is active by looking at it.

No matter how I adjust the colors in Aero, there's just no way to get good contrast between active and inactive windows. It's a pain when I'm navigating by keyboard (it's much faster, after all) and I start typing only to have the wrong program react to my commands.

I just wish that I could force all my applications to be consistent with my global UI settings. And also that the Alt-Tab menu wouldn't fucking re-order itself all the goddamn time, who the hell thought that was a good idea?
posted by Scientist at 2:17 PM on April 17, 2012


All this shows is how corp devs have to cut corners and get it out the door just good enough
posted by Fupped Duck at 2:19 PM on April 17, 2012


Skinning...see: fritterware
posted by Confess, Fletch at 2:19 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


There was this... space! And there was a building or something with flames coming out of it, and there were creatures writhing around, and they were growling and snarling. And there were flames, and I heard a voice say "XUL"!
posted by Artw at 2:19 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


God this takes me back.

I made several (in hindsight, bad) Winamp skins back in the day. I downloaded tens if not hundreds of them, switching according to mood. Being 14 will do that to you.

Also wrote a complete mIRC script around that time. While that was useless in and of itself, it did give me an understanding of (web) programming syntax that has come in very handy ever since.
posted by flippant at 2:23 PM on April 17, 2012



Good times, I recall using all sorts of different skins on winamp 2 (I think), one simulating an altoids tin, a piece of notebook paper, a tux [penguin] themed one, countless others...
and then being bummed out when the newer version [3?] broke most of the skins.

Interesting to see the skinning scene is still alive, including on android. There's a couple different 'Launchers' for Droid: GO, ADW, Launcher PRo, and numerous others.

As for fritterware, sure, some skinning [like the winamp skins] didn't improve the user UI experience much, it just changed the color of the controls, but the android launchers can unlock different display options [some of which were available without using the launcher, but were buried 6 menus deep), buttons which could improves the user UI experience; I now can toggle my GPS with a hand gesture and a press of a button, I can see the percentage of my battery and the time simultaneously, etc.
posted by fizzix at 2:25 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I worked on a project where the company was activity seeking out and marketing to the PC desktop modder market. One of the guys on the project was an avid modder who spent a lot of time an money his projects. There was a lot of creativity going on especially in the cooling and cabling. But some of the show boxes didn't handle thermals as well as an ugly stock cooling solution.

To me it seemed exactly like car guys that trick out their cars and even mod them the point where any utility is gone from the rig. (A guy in my building works for an aftermarket company and sometimes would drive their Honda Fit that had all these lights and mods inside as well as a 20" TV w/Xbox. It got to the point where all the practicality of the original car was gone.

I've always like the simpleness of Mac UI and when I was a Windows guy I'd skin my desktop to be more like Mac OS. I skinned WinAmp to be as basic as possible. Now I'm on the Mac, I keep it stock (I used to use Candy Bar back when I first switched but my current desktop is completely stock). I guess the only skinning I do now is in Adium and that is to make it look as simple as possible.

On my iPhone I'm the same way. I'll see on sites people that for some reason want the menu bar on their iPhone to have the clock in Papyrus or other fonts that make it harder to read. Another thing I've noticed on the tech sites will be examples of iPhone people that jailbreak to skin their iPhones to look like Android and Android people going for iOS.

But I'm happy people can mod their stuff and make it their own if it they want. As long as I don't have to borrow it try to navigate their system when there's a bunch of hard to read fonts with low contrast to muddle though.
posted by birdherder at 2:37 PM on April 17, 2012


the android launchers can unlock different display options [some of which were available without using the launcher, but were buried 6 menus deep), buttons which could improves the user UI experience

Yeah, skinning is not by definition "fritterware." Anything that improves navigation, ease of use, or efficiency is all good to me.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:08 PM on April 17, 2012


Man, there were some extremely, excruciatingly bad skins for Winamp. Great, that's a picture of a Nissan 300ZX with some booth babe spread across all three main windows, and all the controls are now single-pixel objects I can barely see behind the layers of photoshop neon framing everything.

There were a couple of really great ones, though. My favorite of all time was the one that made everything look like old Apollo-era Mission Control controls, complete with analog looking dials and knobs everywhere like the whole thing was built out of miniaturized slate gray metal man-rated for space flight.
posted by loquacious at 3:08 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Man, there were some extremely, excruciatingly bad skins for Winamp.

Some certainly had the aspiration to become the rave-flyer art of UI design.
posted by Artw at 3:10 PM on April 17, 2012


Oh god I loved Kaleidoscope, when was that around, Mac System 7? But then, I loved customizing FVWM on MkLinux too.

This is exceptionally timely. I just got my first intel Mac, a Mac mini I7. It's only 2 weeks old and I migrated from a Quad G5 (with a Quadro FX4500 video card, ouch, anyone want to buy a used PPC Mac that originally cost $4700 with a developer discount?) and I have been having trouble even finding decent icons for Lion. Apparently there is no icon for a Mac mini that represents the current model with no DVD drive slot. I have a lot of customization to do, hell, I haven't even customized my bash shell yet.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:15 PM on April 17, 2012


I have one and only one "skin" mod on my OS X Lion installation: I use Nocturne.app to make the menubar black.
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:16 PM on April 17, 2012


I remember how AWESOME the default winamp skin looked back in the early days. My cousin used Sonique, but it was a little heavy for older computers in those days. IRC clients/scripts were big on theming -- tons of mIRC scripts had a BitchX theme, for instance.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:20 PM on April 17, 2012


this is a great trip down memory lane. I was active in the community, themed litestep, winamp, even got paid to develop a windows media player skin. A fun way to avoid doing one's colege work. This is my shout out to all the #customize and #skinz folks. What what. Ah, do people still IRC?
posted by reverend cuttle at 3:25 PM on April 17, 2012


"Man, there were some extremely, excruciatingly bad skins for Winamp."

Oh hell yeah. Something like 99+% of them.

My personal favourite was always Comely Amp, partly because it managed to be understated yet with reasonable clarity and contrast, but mostly because it was infinitely less fugly than almost all the others.

Never particularly got into the skinning thing, apart from developing a few themes for Window Maker (which, I think, kick-started the interest in Windows tweaks like WindowBlinds via the AfterStep clone -> LiteStep?).
posted by Pinback at 3:26 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is one true windows customization scheme, and Hot Dog Stand is its name.
posted by FatherDagon at 3:30 PM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I still use sumeav2 for winamp. (I still use winamp!) It's nothing special, but it's not offensive unless you hate pink and the compact mode is tiny which I like.
posted by juv3nal at 4:01 PM on April 17, 2012


Oh, man, I was so into Geoshell. This is a great post.
posted by box at 4:02 PM on April 17, 2012


Is there some way to modify the appearance of Windows 7 Starter Edition in any real way? It doesn't even let you change the desktop background, ffs.

And didn't it used to be called wallpaper?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:23 PM on April 17, 2012


You probably don't want Windows 7 Starter Edition if you want to do, well, anything much fancy. With the bar for fancy starting at changing the wallpaper.
posted by Artw at 4:28 PM on April 17, 2012


Well, yeah. But a free netbook isn't a free netbook if I have to upgrade it...
posted by Sys Rq at 4:30 PM on April 17, 2012


Netbooks are for swapping obscure versions of Linux in and out of.
posted by Artw at 4:34 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm running a themed Vista desktop right now though nothing too extravagant or the slightest bit garish. I like dark grey window borders and I wanted to keep some aspects of Aero, so I replaced the appropriate dll and customized it. Run Night Launch on Firefox and some Tiesto theme (the only simple black theme I could find) on Chrome to complete the look.

When I was shopping for a laptop this year, a Macbook was towards the top of the list but the tight limitations on how you could customize your UI was a huge drawback. I didn't want to be stuck with the light colors. I remember on my old Powerbook there was a tweak that let me have my dark, nearly black, window borders but that didn't work any more. A silly reason to reject a platform, I suppose, but it was rather important to me.
posted by honestcoyote at 4:45 PM on April 17, 2012


"Post-WIMP"? Oh, for heavens' sakes... AND IN THE CLOUD. BABY! Or is "the cloud" too last-week?
posted by Sing Or Swim at 4:49 PM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


You might as well start dealing with it... plenty of kids out there right now who are all over touchscreen interfaces that will never touch a mouse in their lives.
posted by Artw at 4:51 PM on April 17, 2012


I heard a few Cute Baby anecdotes recently, where one child was confused at the lack of touch response from a hotel TV, and someone else's infant-child was annoyed that a magazine didn't respond to touch gestures. Babies are ahead of the curve.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:55 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sys Rq: Is there some way to modify the appearance of Windows 7 Starter Edition in any real way? It doesn't even let you change the desktop background, ffs.

There's an app for that. Seriously, there is. Not all other options require a special app, some of the features are just hidden from sight and can be accessed by searching for the appropriate hidden customization menu.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:59 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow. Skinning Winamp 2 and the Winamp forums are some of my first internet community memories. I made a few skins and ended up doing some moderation for the submissions, and I remember rating and reviewing hundreds of skins which were just a random image slapped on top of the main window - I think there was an auto skinning tool someone had made. I can't believe 3 came out in 2002, I would have been 15.
posted by lucidium at 6:09 PM on April 17, 2012


Isn't it gorgeous?

Seriously, don't mind this liquid pouring out of my eyes. It's uhh... tears of joy!

What do you mean tears aren't supposed to be red?
posted by dumbland at 6:22 PM on April 17, 2012


"I heard a few Cute Baby anecdotes recently..."

I keep walking into washrooms with knobs for the hot & cold water, and holding my hands out waiting for the water to start by itself. I can SEE the taps, ffs.
posted by sneebler at 6:23 PM on April 17, 2012


filthy light thief, this is an incredible post. Wow.
posted by effugas at 6:47 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love tweaking things just how I want them on Linux. Add buttons for keep this window on top? Yes please. Add spacers between certain buttons so I don't hit them by accident? Sure.
I really wish Windows would have this type of universal customization. Of course, I'm also still wishing for things like windows that click together and virtual desktops.

I've never really gotten into modding windows, as mucking about with it in ways it isn't supposed to be mucked around with worries me, and I've heard bad stories about WindowBlinds.
posted by Canageek at 7:36 PM on April 17, 2012


Skinning was massive in it's day. I had my pc skinned and shell hacked to be exactly what I wanted. I ended up archiving my favourite Winamp skins. I imagined a day when my mp3 player would be a skinnable touchscreen device running winamp. Well it turns out you can get Winamp for Android but I don't think it's Winamp v2 or skinnable.
posted by vicx at 7:53 PM on April 17, 2012


Canageek: Of course, I'm also still wishing for things like windows that click together and virtual desktops.

Some of these dreams are realities with alternate shells. I remember virtual desktops was a feature of GeoShell, and I don't think it was special in this regard. Seeing that there are some shells that work in Windows 7 makes me really tempted to spend a day customizing my box.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:15 PM on April 17, 2012


Oh hey, this stuff used to be my job.

In the 90's, I used to hang out with the guys who wrote Sonique on irc, in #coders and #trax. In 2000, I was bored with my job, and with Minnesota, and they (now owned by Lycos) were looking for people to hire, so I moved out to San Francisco and joined up.

The story is that AOL bought Winamp, and Lycos's strategy was "look what the big guys are doing, and do that" so they bought Sonique, which was the second most popular mp3 player (by a lot). Fun fact: Sonique was the first non-rectangular windows app (not counting the round clock example program). But yeah, Lycos had no idea what to do with Sonique, so they basically left us alone. So we worked on Sonique 2, the whole point of which was to make the coolest skinning system possible.

We were a pretty technically competent bunch of guys, but didn't do so great at product or project management. Instead of actually getting together an actual release ever, we kept adding more and more cool fun-to-write stuff until in 2001 when Lycos realized that the internet was no longer the infinite fountain of money everyone thought it might be, and laid us all off.

But what we had was pretty dope. We could load the graphics for your skin out of a .PSD file (with support for all the layer blend modes). When you told the UI to do something (move a window, hide a window, resize, etc), you also said how long to take, and which function to use to interpolate. The skin could also pull in visualization effects and layer them in with everything else (cpu permitting). Until the layoffs, it was really exciting, because we were making something that looked cooler than fake computers in movies did.

A year or two later I wound up at AOL Music. I wasn't on the Nullsoft team, but I worked with them a bit, trying to build an AOL Media Player on top of the god-awful Winamp3 framework. Basically everything at AOL was an enormous clusterfuck, (we started over on that project, from scratch, four times in 18 months because of bullshit politics) which really drove home how totally ridiculous it was that Lycos's strategy was to emulate them. Also hilarious: While employed by AOL/Time Warner Justin Frankel put an AIM ad blocker into winamp, and created two entirely separate peer-to-peer file-sharing systems (Gnutella & WASTE). I'm pretty sure he must have had some kind of deal where if they fired him they'd have to pay him an emormous quantity of money.


The skinning era was a dark, dark time for computers.

I absolutely hate most of this bullshit now. I use foobar2k for media playback because I just want a simple clean regular interface. But I don't think that change is only because I'm older. I think it's also that the way people relate to computers is also different.

When WinAMP first came out, Windoes 95 had been out for like a year and a half. Before that, sure everyone had used Windows 3.1, but many people (like me) did a lot of their stuff in DOS still. There, every program made its own UI from scratch, and every program was different. And even heavy Win 3.1 users saw some significant UI changes with 95. What is a "standard" user interface was just not that firmly entrenched. And usability? Well, it wasn't that much earlier that a program being easy to use meant that it didn't have unreasonable requirements for free low memory.

During that time, I looked at a lot of different media players. Did you know Quicktime files used to be able to contain skins for the player? (I'm sure that doesn't work any more.) All of them (even windows media player) were all laid out in XML, which references some images, and some easy-to-learn OO scripting language to determine what happens when you click on stuff and to update the layout.

Lots of modern software uses this kind of mechanism behind the scenes. It is actually valuable to have something the UI designers can update without knowing C++. But it's a big pain to support open-ended user generated skins, so usually folks just ship one of two skins that are actually good, and leave it at that.

And, more prevelantly than that, static XML layout + dynamic behavior from scripts is also how a modern web page works.
posted by aubilenon at 8:41 PM on April 17, 2012 [17 favorites]


Hah! Tell Justin to bring back Ninjam!
posted by Threeway Handshake at 8:46 PM on April 17, 2012


Great post filthy light thief. And thanks for sharing your story aubilenon.

Back in the day I thought my domokun theme for bblean was pretty cool.
posted by PueExMachina at 8:55 PM on April 17, 2012


I can't believe this thread has gone this far without anyone mentioning AquaSoft! I still have it in my main set of bookmarks...I'm going to have to come back to this thread when I'm not about to go to sleep. The desktop modding community (that's what I saw it called more than "skinning") was a huge thing in my formative computer days, and was one of the ways I made some of my most important connections. The story of how I got involved in my first startup and blogging and so many other things goes back to that shared interest. Man! So many memories...
posted by limeonaire at 9:37 PM on April 17, 2012


Well I completely struck out on MacOS X 10.7 customizations. I even went through hundreds of tips from MacOSXDaily. I did not find anything useful at all. There are thousands of Windows gadgets to fix its horrible GUI but I guess the Mac doesn't need to be fixed.

And I still can't find a current Mac mini icon.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:10 PM on April 17, 2012


Netscape was my favorite browser because it was skinnable.
posted by BurnChao at 12:47 AM on April 18, 2012


Ah. Well I awoke at 4:30AM with an agonizing feeling of a job unfinished. My Mac mini still had no appropriate icon. I have a naked drive icon, this is intolerable. MacOS X 10.7 has 1024x1024 icons, and yet I am less customized than back when I was running System 7.

So I searched again and finally found one, Mantia's Ive Drives 2, a mere 3 days old. No wonder it didn't appear on other icon sites yet.

I tried to copy and paste it via the Get Info box, WTF it is an .icns file and won't copy. Open it up in Icon Composer, copy and paste the preview. Something is still not right. I have lost the 16x16 view, the Get Info preview looks weird. More research, I need the utility IconDroplet to turn the .icns file into a dummy file with a copy/paste-able icon set at all sizes. Ah that's alright now.

Damn that was a lot of work for one stupid icon.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:23 AM on April 18, 2012


I guess I'm an old reactionary fart but wanting skins just always eluded me. I love cool stuff on computers but my background is always set grey, so it's easier to see the cool stuff. I read that if you want a fast car, remove the spoilers and all the stuff that makes a hot looking car "look" fast.

The one change I'd like for modern browsers is to hide the three headers and menu bars at the top, I happen to know I'm currently looking at metafilter, I don't need the url while I'm reading article. A universal gesture or hotkey certainly could be agreed to on the internet (sigh) to hide/reveal all the unneeded clutter, more room for the actual picture of the kitten/car/babe and more room for those vital crazed rants...

The best interface is a highly functional, zero latency, invisible interface.
posted by sammyo at 4:40 AM on April 18, 2012


Oh right, Firefox "personas". That was what kicked off my idea for this post in the first place. I remember when Firefox was touting their new feature as if it were revolutionary, and I smirked. I was deep in GUI customization, running GeoShell and changing window shading colors with 3DCC. I haven't actually skinned anything beyond Winamp in years now.
Firefox was fully 'skinnable' since the 1.0 days, as far as I know. The UI is done entirely in "XUL" which was an XML language for designing UIs that worked with javascript. The problem was that XUL themes were too hard to make, while personas were basically just a single image and some color settings.
posted by delmoi at 5:55 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Faced with the need to update from my beloved Ubuntu Lucid LTS 10.04, and alarmed/disgusted by the early onset dementia afflicting the Gnome3 developers and the resulting general movement of Linux desktops toward some sort of bastardized mobile device interface plastered on a big screen, I am in the process of adopting LTS 12.04, Xubuntu Perverted Pangolin (or whatever they call it) using the Xfce desktop, which so far appears to be quite amenable to my preferred modifications and desktop layout. This makes me happy.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 6:08 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Up until recently I've stuck with winamp for playing background music on my PC. The main reason was that a lot of music playing software seems to want to take up your whole screen for no reason, so there was really no reason to use anything else. I recently started using VLC, though so that if I find music in a Youtube video I can download it and add it to my playlist.

I pretty much stopped using themes, though a couple years ago. VLC has themes but I didn't really see any I thought looked cool. I remember using a winamp theme that might today be described as "Steampunk" for a while. I would guess that I have some old winamp themes sitting somewhere on one of my hard drives, unused
I read that if you want a fast car, remove the spoilers and all the stuff that makes a hot looking car "look" fast.
The purpose of a spoiler is to increase downforce and thus cornering ability at high speed. Yes, removing a spoiler will make it go slightly faster, but it will be harder to turn at those speeds. In some cases a spoiler can also increase fuel efficiency.

Source: Playing a shitload of Gran Tourismo
A year or two later I wound up at AOL Music. I wasn't on the Nullsoft team, but I worked with them a bit, trying to build an AOL Media Player on top of the god-awful Winamp3 framework. Basically everything at AOL was an enormous clusterfuck, (we started over on that project, from scratch, four times in 18 months because of bullshit politics) which really drove home how totally ridiculous it was that Lycos's strategy was to emulate them. Also hilarious: While employed by AOL/Time Warner Justin Frankel put an AIM ad blocker into winamp, and created two entirely separate peer-to-peer file-sharing systems (Gnutella & WASTE). I'm pretty sure he must have had some kind of deal where if they fired him they'd have to pay him an emormous quantity of money.
Hahaha.
"Post-WIMP"? Oh, for heavens' sakes... AND IN THE CLOUD. BABY! Or is "the cloud" too last-week?


No kidding. Does anyone think this post was composed on a smartphone? People still use desktop/laptop computers all the time. I would guess people still spend more total time using them, especially given how long smartphone batteries last when you use them intensively.
And, more prevelantly than that, static XML layout + dynamic behavior from scripts is also how a modern web page works.
Except for the fact that HTML is not a subset of XML. It's close, valid HTML5 (as well as previous versions) need not be well-formed XML. And also HTML does not support arbitrary namespaces.
posted by delmoi at 6:53 AM on April 18, 2012


Oh right, Firefox "personas". That was what kicked off my idea for this post in the first place. I remember when Firefox was touting their new feature as if it were revolutionary, and I smirked. I was deep in GUI customization, running GeoShell and changing window shading colors with 3DCC. I haven't actually skinned anything beyond Winamp in years now.

Firefox was fully 'skinnable' since the 1.0 days, as far as I know. The UI is done entirely in "XUL" which was an XML language for designing UIs that worked with javascript. The problem was that XUL themes were too hard to make, while personas were basically just a single image and some color settings.


Actually, I've stopped bothering to skin firefox since Personas became the way to do it, since it just changes the colours and things. I long for the days of brushed metal and iFox where you also changed the scroll bar, button click animations, and the whole nine yards. Sometimes easy to write for isn't always better.
posted by Canageek at 6:55 AM on April 18, 2012


What, no ResEdit? It's how we gave my Mac Classic a houndstooth desktop in like 1991.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:04 AM on April 18, 2012


Threeway Handshake: The skinning era was a dark, dark time for computers. I am so thankful that there isn't much of this going on in modern stuff.

Hah, if anything, people can do more, thanks to modern computers having so much more computing power than a decade ago. But like car culture, there are those who install every flashy after-market upgrade they can find, and some who have a more simplified take on customization, making the modified system seem simple and natural.


aubilenon: I absolutely hate most of this bullshit now. I use foobar2k for media playback because I just want a simple clean regular interface.

While the default interface is spartan, Foobar2k is immensely customizable, as you can see from these 15 themes.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:10 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow. Excellent post.

I'm a bit disappointed in it's extreme lack of llama though.
posted by Blue_Villain at 9:24 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Foobar2k is immensely customizable, as you can see from these 15 themes.

Of course, I'm aware of that. But I really like the fact that I don't have to go digging around to get it to do I want. What I want is an app that is feels light and quick and plays media without saying "hey hey look at me I'm cool check me out" all the time.

In practice I usually keep it minimized and control it with my keyboard's multimedia buttons.
posted by aubilenon at 10:57 AM on April 18, 2012


Pretty sure I still have that Winamp skin I wasted so much time on available for download on my website.

Yep. I checked. It's there. Holy hell, there are also downloadable Windows 98 icons and cursors. Why do I still have those things on my website anyway, I bet they have been downloaded a grand total of 1 times. (By me. To make sure the link was live.)

For some reason back then I was pretty much obsessed with making everything green. Now I use a Mac, so I pretty much can't change any of the system defaults without effort and it's too much effort for me to care.

(Although every single thumb drive I own still has a custom icon... but I feel I have matured a little, as none of them are green.)
posted by caution live frogs at 12:24 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Great post. I'm a real sucker for this sort of thing. For me, Kaleidoscope was the gateway drug. Here's a Resexcellence(!) interview with one of the creators of Kaleidoscope, which may be of interest to other recovering addicts.

I also have to mention the story of Audion, Panic's themeable mac MP3 player, which was eventually killed by Itunes.
posted by gamera at 11:58 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, I've stopped bothering to skin firefox since Personas became the way to do it, since it just changes the colours and things. I long for the days of brushed metal and iFox where you also changed the scroll bar, button click animations, and the whole nine yards. Sometimes easy to write for isn't always better.

There are still non Persona themes. I don't know if they changed the way you write for them though.
posted by juv3nal at 12:14 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd also like to recommend Nathan Lineback's GUI Gallery and GUIdebookgallery.org. While these sites are not about desktop theming directly (though there is some discussion of it), they do have plenty of old screenshots that are captivating in a strange way. It's like watching the WIMP metaphor grow up.
posted by tatma at 6:19 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


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