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Information Guide

Executive Summary

DesktopX is a program that allows users to create their own customized desktop. It does this by extending the existing Windows shell to provide a whole range of new features. These features primarily come in the form of objects that provide nearly unlimited ways of customizing the shell.

DesktopX can replace the Start bar, system tray, and task bar should the user wish to as well as everything on the desktop. DesktopX objects can be used in place of Windows icons or used side by side with them. Unlike Windows icons, each DesktopX object can be any size and any shape and more importantly react to messages from the system (such as mouse over, program launching, and custom user events).

Because DesktopX objects are true objects, unlike Windows icons, they can be easily animated to react to different messages as well as display visual information on what they are meant to represent without the need to have what it represents opened. A typical example would be a DesktopX object representing ones email program that could change its appearance or make a sound if there is email waiting to be downloaded without having the email program loaded. The object simply responds to an OS message that there is email waiting and changes itself accordingly.

DesktopX requires no programming to build a completely new desktop. However, if you do know how to program, you can extend DesktopX's functionality via Microsoft's COM technology as well as through plugins and scripting (using VBScript).

A tale of two backgrounds Part 1: The Shell Themers

Over the past few years, an increasing number of users have wanted to have more control over the way their PC worked. A number of developers got together and created an alternative, open source shell called Litestep. Litestep replaces the Windows shell known as Explorer. Developed by hobbyists, Litestep has attracted thousands of users who use that shell and its ability to load up a particular customizable shell interface known as a “theme”. Litestep can be found at http://www.litestep.net.

The problem is, anything that requires replacing the Windows shell is going to limit the number of people willing to use it. Jettisoning Explorer is a pretty major operation for an end user to make. Moreover, a Litestep theme is monolithic. Users can’t easily change a theme or add new items to it and is thus a “take it or leave it” setup. Additionally, items on the desktop tend to be hard coded to specific paths (example: a graphic representing MS word might be hard coded to e:\my programs\microsoftword) requiring users to spend a lot of time tweaking those links or spending time modifying the theme to eliminate graphics that point to programs they don’t have.

DesktopX addresses these issues by working with the existing shell. It also introduces the concept of desktop parts (DesktopX objects) that users can mix and match parts of desktops by trading objects. DesktopX themes can be resolution independent so the user does not have to change their screen resolution to match the theme creator’s resolution. And DesktopX has “SmartFind” built in so that a MS Word object will find MS Word no matter where it is located on a user’s machine.

 

A tale of two backgrounds Part 2: Taligent/OpenDoc/Cairo

Back in the early 90s, Apple, IBM, and Microsoft all wanted to take the desktop to “the next generation”. After all, the static picture (icon) representing a program metaphor was from 1984. Each company spoke at length of their own vision for the next step in the GUI evolution. IBM and Apple teamed up to take forward a vision called “Pink” that was to produce a new OS called Taligent along with a new object architecture called OpenDoc. Microsoft countered with its own vision called “Cairo”.

In both visions, the idea was to break the desktop into “parts”. Icons would be replaced with objects that could interact with the system and other objects. Users could easily build their own customized applications by mixing and matching parts (objects) and send them back and forth. A common IBM example was of a user sending another user a spreadsheet that contained a mini-spreadsheet part in email. The user on the other end wouldn’t need to have an entire Spreadsheet program installed, the spreadsheet “part” included would allow the receiving user to use the attached spreadsheet.

Another IBM example was of the desktop objects themselves being “live objects” such as the printer object. The printer object would actually be able to display its paper and toner status as part of the visual appearance of the object. If the printer ran out of toner, the printer could send an email message to the IT manager and visually display that it was out of paper. If the user moved their mouse over the printer, it might display the other jobs in the printer. All without having to load a separate print-monitoring program. (Windows 98/ME/2000 and OS/2 all have implemented a fairly hacked implementation of this vision).

Other promises for such desktop objects included having these living objects be able to tell the user how much RAM or CPU that the associated programs were using. Load up Word Pro and the Word Pro object would change to display that it is opened and how much RAM it was using up.

The idea behind these technologies was to break software into components.  Rather than having all of Outlook loaded, for instance, you could just have the parts of it you needed loaded.  And these parts could be distributed amongst users so that data and executable were merged into an “object”. These objects were called “Parts” or OpenDoc parts in IBM/Apple’s vision.

Microsoft’s vision with Cairo is harder to track. No one is quite sure what Cairo was except that it was going to compete with whatever Apple/IBM came up with.   At one point Microsoft conceded that Cairo was a set of technologies that would be integrated into Windows over time. What those technologies are or were no one really knows but the general overview of it was to provide users with an object oriented way of handling their programs and data. But it could be argued that ActiveX, COM, and Active Desktop are technologies that grew out of that movement.

History has shown that Windows won the OS Wars and all this talk about letting people trade parts/objects back and forth and allowing end users to easily transform their computing environment disappeared with the end of the OS Wars. And so we're back to where we started - lots of coding needed to do small things with most people interacting with their desktops in the identical way – either wading through a “Start” menu or clicking on static 32x32 pixel pictures (icons) thrown all over an arbitrary directory called “a desktop”.

But Stardock hadn’t disappeared.  It was heavily involved in the betas for OpenDoc and Taligent.  And it kept up with what Microsoft was doing as well.  To bring the Cairo/Taligent/OpenDoc concept to the general user is where DesktopX comes in. DesktopX seeks to combine the strengths of what OpenDoc/Cairo/Taligent offered to end users and developers combined with meeting the needs of the existing core base of “themers” so that it can grow into a mainstream movement.

Stardock has limited the scope of DesktopX to concentrate all its resources on what it does best – allow users to control how the shell of Windows operates (OpenDoc was system wide, applications could use it). This also means it’s not cross platform (OpenDoc was available on Windows NT, OS/2, MacOS, and AIX). And it doesn’t provide a “new” object standard but instead relies on what is already available (Standard Windows messaging, C++ DLLs, COM, Windows Scripting Host, XML, ActiveX, etc.) to do its thing. Why did Stardock do this? The first reason is pretty obvious, if IBM, Apple, and Microsoft had difficulty finishing such ambitious projects, a smaller company is not likely to have those kinds of resources either. Moreover, it is a matter of diminishing returns. The real use of the Apple/IBM/Microsoft vision was in how people would be able to interact with their desktops.

But these trade offs result in an unprecedented control over the way the Windows desktop works. They can still create “themes” ala Litestep but now these themes are resolution independent, they are made up of objects that can be imported from other users and from various download sites. Any end user can easily manipulate any object. There is no programming required to make a typical DesktopX object.

In short, it finally makes it possible for Windows to be like other mature products on the market – easily customizable to suit the needs of its customers. Users can make Windows work the way they want it to.

 

DesktopX: Today

Today, DesktopX can allow users, IT managers, and consultants to create personalized or proprietary desktop environments for both home and corporate user. It has been used to create custom desktops for use in everything from kiosks, corporate desktops and even in movies to create a “futuristic looking desktop”.

This portion of the document will try to explain what DesktopX is and why it’s important and how personalized desktops can be very useful.

 

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The typical desktop:

Nearly every person’s desktop looks something like above.  You have the start bar on the bottom, some (usually a tons) of icons on the left side. Regardless of how that machine is being used, this is how it will look and act. What’s worse, this is probably an idealized case, most desktops have dozens of icons spread all over the desktop making it a confusing mess.

This is a one sized fits all solution. It works generally well for most people. The problem is that PC’s today are used for a whole host of different ways. The further away from a general desktop system the PC gets, the more time/training costs go up.

This is where DesktopX can come into play. It allows individuals and corporations to completely change the desktop to suit their needs.

DesktopX 1.1 introduced DXScript, a scripting layer that allows DesktopX to treat COM objects as DesktopX objects and interact with them. Hence, if a user wants to have a desktop that is essentially a pre-arranged spreadsheet, a browser page, and instant messaging, DesktopX can do this and hide the rest of Windows away.

DesktopX: The future

The next version of DesktopX is code-named DesktopX NG (Next Generation). It expands on DXScript to provide a new type of component known as a “wrapper”.  The problem with COM objects is that they are complicated for end users to interact with. A typical system has hundreds of COM objects installed and defining what they can and can’t do requires a developer.

Even today, DesktopX can perform virtually all the functions of specialty software like Factory Link (which costs thousands of dollars). Rather than having to learn proprietary scripting languages, DesktopX uses Windows Scripting Host so that developers can interact with devices and the OS in any scripting language they choose (VBScript, Javascript, Perl, etc.).

 

Contacting Stardock

DesktopX is part of Object Desktop, which is delivered by the .NET Application Service Provider Stardock.net (www.stardock.net and www.objectdesktop.net).

It can be reached at:

Phone: 734-762-0687

Fax: 734-762-0690

Email: sales@stardock.com

 

Product Manager:

Brad Wardell – bwardell@stardock.com

Object Desktop costs $49.95, includes a 1 year subscription to ObjectDesktop.net.

 

Downloads

disk.gif (114 bytes)  DesktopX

 

 

  Themes

 

 

 

 

Resources on the Net

 

OpenDoc

For IBM’s view on OpenDoc visit:

http://www-4.ibm.com/software/ad/opendoc/position.html

 

For IBM’s view on how the PC desktop was supposed to work download:

http://www.stardock.com/files/cuademo.zip

 

Taligent

http://www.d.kth.se/~d95-aeh/taligenb.html

ZDNet on DesktopX and Cairo

http://www.zdnet.co.uk/itweek/columns/2000/26/orlowski.html

 

 

 

 

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