The Year in Skinning

A look back at 2002

 by Brad Wardell

Introduction

2002 was a turning point for skinning. It was the year where millions of people started using skins without even knowing what the heck skinning is. So what is skinning? Well, if one looks at computer interfaces as being something malleable, skins are what you can use to change the look and feel of those interfaces. For more on this, read the Skin Primer.

But what made 2002 special? One word: Microsoft. The release of Windows XP made skinning and more importantly, the underlying technologies that make it possible a realistic possibility for everyone.

Windows 95, 98, and ME were…well…crap. At least in terms of customizing. That’s because programs that allow you to customize themselves or the OS would tend to cause problems as the OS ran out of “resources”.  But Windows XP, it doesn’t have limits on “user resources” and “GDI resources” like older versions of Windows. As a result, all these “buggy” programs suddenly, magically, became useful to millions of people.

Even better, Microsoft itself embraced skinning. Windows XP is, by default, skinned. That blue title bar with red close button is a skin. Microsoft coined the term “visual style” which has become widely used as the term to describe skins for the overall operating system (And more importantly, visual styles don’t bring up a list of porn sites on search engines as “Skins” do). This led to a massive new influx of new skin authors creating tons of skins for Windows XP.  The WindowBlinds visual style library increased to over 2000 visual styles in 2002 and made skinning much more seamless than ever.

Let’s take a look at some of highlights of 2002:

The GUI Olympics

 

 For the first time there were enough active skin authors combined with enough users combined with enough stable skinning applications to put together a competition to create the best skin: The GUI Olympics. For the first one, the sponsor, Stardock (who I work for), put up $10,000 in crash and prizes to the winners. 

Each website in the "skinning community" competed. Skin authors chose to represent a given website and submitted their skins. It was remarkably close with deviantART winning and LotsOfSkins (now Art Uproar) coming in close second (WinCustomize didn't compete due to its close affiliate with Stardock).

 

Organix by Mindless puppet was just a sampling of some of the really wild looking skins created.

 

911 from Hippy showed off impressive creativity in skinning during the GUI Olympics.

One of the best skins created for the contest was David K's Seti Green

 

Alexandrie's LOS skin was not only popular during the contest but remained popular well after.

Treetog, the other half of Pixtudio (with Alexandrie) created the Olympics OS skin.

 

But one skin author dominated winning 6 gold medals, a silver and a bronze. A skin author that seemingly came out of no where. Grayhaze. He created 2 skins for the GUI Olympics and one of them, MetalX, won in many different categories. By taking advantage of the multiple sub-styles feature of WindowBlinds, he was able to provide different variations of his skin based on need (for power users, for speed mongers, for people who just want  it to look cool, etc.).

 Medal Count
Website

DeviantART 2 9 7
LotsOfSkins 6 2 2
Velocity Art 6 1 2
Customize 1 2 0
Deskmod 0 1 2
TweakXP 0 0 2
BetaNews 0 0 0
NeoWin 0 0 0
SkinBase 0 0 0

Skinner

Grayhaze 6 1 1
Hippy 3 2 1
Treetog 0 6 1
Alexandrie 2 1 1
Mindless Puppet 1 2 0
Ruined Inc 0 1 2
Phil Powell 0 1 2
MikeB314 1 0 1
Sandra Haggard 1 0 1
Sylva_cg76 1 0 0
DavidK 0 1 0
Emily 0 0 1
Starone 0 0 1
Judge 0 0 1
Mark Ackerson 0 0 1
Paxx 0 0 1
 

Winamp 3

Meanwhile... Nullsoft delivered the long awaited Winamp 3. Winamp is an multimedia player (MP3s, video, etc.). Version 3 not only introduced a heck of cool new features, it also delivered an incredibly powerful skinning engine.

 

Robouk's D-Shock is an example of some of the cool features of Winamp 3's "Wasabi" technology. Alpha blended edges (no jaggies), powerful object oriented abilities, and much more. The player is actually capable of much much more than what it currently does. Its power has only begun to be tapped.

How powerful? Here's a taste:

This is a "skin". Look at all that is possible with it. It's practically an environment that just happens to be able to play music and video. Unfortunately, Winamp 3 will not allow you to smite your enemies from afar...yet.

 

Microsoft, Nintendo, nVidia and more get into skinning

For all the grief Microsoft gets as being the "evil empire" they sure seem a lot more easier going than most companies. Microsoft did a lot for skinning this year. Besides working closely with developers like Stardock, they worked with companies like The Skins Factory to deliver Media Player skins. 2002 really marked the year where really professional looking skins started to become more common.

Check out these highlights:

Combat Flight Simulator.

Age of Mythology

Meanwhile...

Nintendo made use of Stardock's new Object Desktop OEM technology. And they teamed up with Pixtudio to create some of the best visual styles ever seen.

wb-nintendo.jpg (594001 bytes)

Object Desktop OEM technology provides in a single integrated package the ability to change the Windows GUI, icons, wallpaper, and more and is easy to turn on and off.

 

They also went on to do the Super Mario Sunshine theme which consisted of a WindowBlinds visual style, icon package, and wallpaper:

wb-nintendo2.jpg (671505 bytes)

 

Pixtudio also created the official nVidia Partner's visual style with WindowBlinds technology.

Nintendo used these as a way to promote the Gamecube in Europe. Gamecube customers, in exchange for registering, received these themes and has met with considerable success as a result.

nVidia not only did that, but they also used Object Desktop OEM to create the nVidia Desktop. This was especially interesting because the designer of the nVidia skin is the same person who designed the MacOS X icons. 

And this is just scratching the surface of companies that made use of the benefits of skinning. Today, users around the world, armed with the next generation Windows XP OS and powerful hardware have found the benefits of being able to customize Windows to suit their needs. Whether those needs are about making Windows look cooler or about making it more productive for them, the combination of mature software, a solid operating system in the form of Windows XP and dynamic companies willing to make use of these technologies delivered them to the masses.

Video card makers, PC vendors, and others began to pre-load skinning software with their products. Software developers began licensing skinning technology such as DirectSKIN to make their own apps skinnable.

The Professional Skinners Arrive...

2002 also marked the year of the professional skin author. People who could literally make a living creating skins and themes and license them to other companies. The two most successful examples are Pixtudio and The Skins Factory. But they aren't alone. 

What changed? Two things. First, as companies began to recognize the marketing benefits of providing skins and themes to customers (or potential customers) as well as making their own apps customizable, they needed to have high quality skins made in a short time frame. The only way to realistically do this was to pay.

The second trend takes a bit more explanation. The culture changed. The people who use these programs came to be increasingly represented by people who don't mind paying for things they like. $10 or $20 to an adult is not much money, especially if it's something they want. Many of these people want high quality -- professional quality -- skins and while there are real gems available for free, having something professional created and available saves a lot of time.  Pixtudio led the way by creating such suites as Universal Metal.  Stardock followed up by working with well known icon designer, Paul Boyer (Mormegil) to create the Orion Icon Suite

Universal Metal

Some people predicted doom and gloom over this trend. That the era of "free skins" would come to a halt. Rather, the opposite happened. The professional skin authors actually represented one of the biggest sources of free skins last year out there. Not only did they seem to feel it was the socially responsible thing to do, but it also helps them build an audience who in turn have no qualms supporting these authors.

Orion Icon Suite (1500 icons for < $10 all which support XP's new alpha blending features).

 

New Blood

2002 also saw the arrival of some new skinnable programs. The makers of Hoverdesk released two freeware programs:

Hoverweather which can display the current weather conditions in your area in a skinnable user interface.

and

Hovernews which scrolls the headlines of RSS feeds of your choosing into a skinnable user interface.

Another new program, SysMetrix, also came out. While skinnable resource monitoring programs aren't new and in fact programs like ObjectBar, DesktopX, Litestep, Hoverdesk, Talisman, and others all have features that superceded it. The fact is, many people simply wanted a small one function program that did this. And with its simple skinning format, many high quality skins were quickly made for it.

Another program that came out this year was LogonStudio. LogonStudio has the ability to safely change the Windows XP logon screens. Before LogonStudio, users were changing their XP logons by literally replacing the logonui.exe program on Windows XP itself directly. To use an analogy, this would be akin to replacing your system DLLs with ones with new resources in order to skin the GUI. LogonStudio loads up .LOGONXP files and applies them to your existing logon.

And the year wouldn't be complete without mentioning the dock wars. Back at the end of 2001, a leaked copy of an internal Stardock program, ObjectDock created a stir on the tech sites. But Stardock held off on releasing this program. It was wary of the reaction Apple might have. At one time, Apple had forced Stardock to remove icons that used the name "Aqua" to describe the color of them from its sites. Much time had passed and it seemed that things had mellowed considerably as many websites and other developers began having MacOS X-like themes, icons, skins, etc. all over the place.  Still, Stardock was quite wary of moving into this area.

By Fall, two "dock" programs that were inspired by the MacOS X dock were available: MobyDock and y'Z dock. The two were leap frogging one another when Stardock decided to release ObjectDock.

The PC wasn't the only place where the action was taking place. PocketBlinds was also released this year.

PocketBlinds allows users to skin the PocketPC.

A new generation of updates

2002 also saw existing programs gain significant updates as well as existing programs make it into the big time. 

While Litestep continued to move forward as a replacement shell for Windows. Two other shell replacements, Talisman and Aston began to mature to the point of being truly full featured replacements for the standard Windows shell (Explorer).

Aston Desktop

Aston shell in action.

Shell Swapper

Litestep introduced the concept of easily switching between Explorer and it but Aston brought this ease of use to the next level.

Meanwhile, the Russian developers at Lighttek had been hard at work on Talisman 2.5 and by end of the year had delivered it. The shell wars in 2002 really reached a new level of competition with such good choices available for those users.

Fullsize Image

Talisman provides users an alternative way to change the desktop. Both shells have significant support by skinners.

2002 also saw the release of WindowFX 2 which allows users to add an assortment of special effects to Windows. Shadows under windows, transparencies, etc. But the really exciting feature had to be the window morphing aka transitions. Here's a video of it.

Making it easier for new users

Back in the United States, WinCustomize was seeing its traffic grow at an alarming rate (if the site was ad-funded then this would be good but it's product supported). One of the challenges that needed to be addressed with the millions of new people getting into skinning was how to make skinning something easier.

Take a step back and look at these programs with a fresh eye. 

"So, you want to change your desktop? Well, all you need is to download WindowBlinds and DesktopX and NeXTStart and IconPackager and Hoverdesk and ObjectBar and CursorXP and and and and..."

It's not as if these programs are named after what they do: "All you need to download is Windows GUI Changer, Start Bar changer, Desktop enhancer, and Icon Changer."

To this end, Stardock developed WinStyles for Object Desktop. WinStyles is essentially the Object Desktop Theme Manager that also works with most of the third party programs as well.

Basically a user just downloads a WinStyles theme and it takes care of everything. If it needs one of the aforementioned programs to apply part of its theme, it will ask you if you want to download that program and it can do so and install it automatically. Users wouldn't need to worry about whether they had all the various programs. With WinStyles, users could start to think in terms of their entire desktop.

WinStyles can bring WindowBlinds, DesktopX, ObjectBar, IconPackager, Wallpaper, Windows Media Player, Winamp, and much more together into a single suite that can be applied at once.

 

The other program Stardock created which was for WinCustomize was the WinCustomize Skin Browser. Not only could it download skins and themes and allow much faster browsing of them, it could directly apply them. For users who have been baffled by the often complicated interfaces in programs for allowing the changing of skins, the skin browser made this quite easy:

The browser could apply any of the thousands of wallpapers available on WinCustomize directly as well as for the other dozens of programs WinCustomize supports.

Some notable skins of 2002

I've already put screenshots of a few really cool skins from the GUI Olympics and elsewhere but here is a sampling of some of the skins (and by no means anywhere near all) that were very eye catching:

Fullsize Image

Regeneration by Gladiators was the rated highest by deviantART users for Aston and received nearly 30,000 downloads.

 

2002 was the year of "Corona Wars". Not sure how it got started but various skin authors set out to create a visual style that was inspired by the new Microsoft media player look and feel. I think most would concur that Alexandrie's interpretation won the most critical acclaim. And received over 75,000 downloads in less than 3 months.

 

 

 

 

2002 was also a good year for Windows users who wanted to dress up their PC like MacOS X. Judge's "OS X" skin was downloaded over a hundred thousand times last year. Throughout the net there are dozens of similar visual styles but few as popular as this one.

 

 

 

 

 

Few skins created as much of a stir as Copperdeck:

Treetog's Copperdeck II suite wasn't just a WindowBlinds visual style, it included support for Hoverdesk, Winamp, icons, wallpaper, and much more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Bryant emerged in 2002 as one of the top skinners. His Colony skin was actually an entire suite (i.e. WinStyles). This was one of the general trends of 2002 though that top skin authors began to work on creating suites that created an overall desktop look and feel. 

 

 

 

 

 

Another skinner who started out as a wallpaper master who came into the forefront in 2002 was BoXXi. His DesktopX themes became very popular this year:

BoXXi's Vector theme provided an alternative look to the Windows desktop.

But BoXXi wasn't alone. Pepone was a prolific creator of original and popular desktop themes. He was able to design and deliver alternative visions for how one might use the computer. Here are a few samples of his work:

Pepone Metal II

Pepone Wood

 

Of course, no year would be complete without a new generation of "LCARS" DesktopX themes bringing that Star Trek look to the Windows desktop:

Adam Solley's LCARs theme.

All these can be found in the DesktopX theme libary.

Barti's MMD3 skin for Winamp 3

Simplicity v2 from Pixelpusher was one of the most popular Winamp 3 skins of 2002.

7672.gif (216172 bytes)

AquaJack's series of unofficial X-Box skins were very popular.

 

Unlimited was Deskmod's highest rated Hoverdesk theme.

WWN from The Skin Factory was the top rated Windows Media Player Skin of 2002

 

Carlitus emerged as one of the top icon designers of 2002. His Noia series of icons received over a hundred thousand downloads last year.

 

Cursors...foiled again!

2002 also saw the rise of creating really cool mouse cursors. If someone had told me a few years ago that mouse cursors would become a hot item to skin, I wouldn't have believed it. Sure, Windows NT 3.1 back in 1993 was showing off animated cursors but I didn't see that as a particularly big deal.

But Holy cow I can't imagine now not using a cool looking mouse cursor!

Treetog emerged as a top mouse cursor designer too. This is just a piece of his Copperdeck II theme.

One of the all time most liked skin authors, Essorant was able to deliver more and more excellent visual styles. Essorant is so popular because his skins are both very original and very clean and fast.

Here are a couple of examples:

Ferix

Vgreen.

 

Goof.

You can see Essorant's collection here.

 

No list of skins from 2002 would be complete without mentioning Adni who created dozens of very popular skins in 2002.

Another new skinner on the scene in 2002 goes by Chaninja. He created two major suites. While this may not seem like many in quantity, the fact is, his suites were overwhelmingly complete. Every last part of the Windows GUI was changed, even things that don't have software yet to do it conventionally.

Chaninja's Sentinel

Community

2002 saw the "community" change. One might even say that we're in the "twilight" of the old community. This requires some explanation. Skinning until early 2001 had really been something of a hobby for a small core group of users. The early skin sites were considered popular if they got over 100,000 visitors in a single month (with 20,000 of them being unique individuals). 

But in 2002, things had changed dramatically. Two websites in particular grew to huge proportions: WinCustomize and deviantART. And between the two, they pretty much catered to vastly different sides. Both sides conducted polls to find out more about their regulars.  WinCustomize users tended to be 25 or over. deviantART users tended to be 25 or under. Other sites grew in 2002 such as DeskMod, Skinbase, and Customize. Ironically though, the earliest hit skinning site, Skinz.org, actually declined in relative position and was sold to new owners with no apparent new changes made.  A popular skin site, LotsOfSkins re-defined itself as an art site changing its name to ArtUpRoar.

Some new sites though became very popular in 2002. One of which was Neowin.net. Neowin's popularity caused it problems actually. Most people don't realize that traffic doesn't scale too well. My home page gets around 75,000 visitors per month which is pretty decent for a home page. But it's still low enough that I can keep it on a fairly basic machine with little bandwidth.  But when you go from that to Neowin's level which has hundreds of people on at once accessing a database (my home page isn't database driven for example) and images and user accounts and all that, suddenly it can become a very expensive, very time consuming thing. Neowin was by no means the only site to run into this, but certainly one of the most popular. 

The overall popularity of skin sites, according to Alexa web statistics, increased. Using a crude formula in which you take 1X10^16 divided by the sum of the Alexa rankings for the year squared, you could see a major increase in the overall popularity of skinning in terms of raw users.

While sites like Slashdot still get over 10X the traffic of WinCustomize, the gap has narrowed considerably. While WinCustomize and deviantART get more traffic than all the other customization related websites combined, the other sites saw increases. Some examples:

Neowin had a 107% increase in its rank over the past year.

VelocityART saw its rank increase by 163%! Deskmod 125%. In fact, none of the skin sites we tracked last year went down in rank. They all went up. This was in a year where many big name sites saw themselves decrease in their ranking considerably.

Looking at 2003

There's a lot of interesting stuff coming up in 2003.  We'll see major overhauls of existing popular skinning programs such as WindowBlinds with version 4 and DesktopX 2.0 also coming out next year. Stardock also has been quietly working on a host of new underlying technologies for Object Desktop that should show up in 2003.

WinStep will likely release the final version of NeXTStart 3.0 and who knows what other sorts of goodies will come out. The freeware program, ObjectDock should go 1.0 sometime next year. It'll be interesting to see what things go on with old guard programs like Litestep which has been continually moving forward.

As Windows XP gets more and more out there and more and more people get faster machines (with Dell selling 2Ghz PC's for $600) it's likely we'll see more and more people take their first steps into skinning in 2003.

Phew, this is long, even for me! This past year certainly has been the biggest year for skinning yet in terms of innovation, polish, and quality. It'll be interesting to see what 2003 brings.

I'm sure I missed mentioning a ton of stuff. I'm no journalist, just a skinner with too much time on his hands today! Have fun!


About the author:

Brad Wardell is known as "Frogboy" in the skinning community. He has created dozens of skins and themes and has been actively creating customize user interfaces for operating systems since 1994. He is the Product Manager of Object Desktop for Windows. Object Desktop is a suite of desktop enhancements that allow consumers and corporations to add features to Windows 98, ME, 2000, and XP to personalize them to their specific needs. He is also the lead developer and Project Manager of Galactic Civilizations. His home page is known as JoeUser.com.