Windows Vista changed so much within the world of Windows, as Microsoft threw that red headed step child out there for the world to see. Not all of those changes were good. Your mind is flooding with obvious jokes after reading that, I know, but it's true in ways many people tend to forget. Vista, in many ways, did to the skinning community what The Buggles claimed video did to the radio star: Killed it.
Windows XP was ugly. There was no way around that fact. The default Luna interface looked as though it was drawn by a crayon on a crumpled up napkin. Nothing about it was clean or polished. It was bad enough that, after a while, Microsoft released the Royale visual style to spruce up the appearance of their star operating system. However, before Royale, there was a large community dedicated to changing the appearance of XP. A few select members of that community were celebrities, in their own right, and had a large portion of the geek community captivated by their works of art.
Many artists, such as Neowin's own Kol, Bant, and b0se, jumped onto the scene, shortly after XP was released, and started to create beautiful new visual styles for it. You didn't even have to pay for them, though some of the pieces were surely worth a lot more than the free price tag attached to them. All you had to do was download a small program, let it patch your uxtheme.dll system file (regardless what some companies would have you believe, it's perfectly safe), and install any visual style of your choosing. It seemed as though every week a new theme was coming out as these artists consistently pushed the threshold in an attempt to cover the face of that ugly baby known as XP.
Things were going very well and then Windows Vista crashed the party. With a brand new styling system in place, things felt really locked down. The system was eventually modified so third party visual styles could be created, but none of them, to this day, really capture the amazement that those earlier XP visual styles did. To be perfectly honest, 95% of them (at least) are just slight changes to the default Aero interface. Maybe Vista is harder to cover up or maybe the artists are simply gone now, I can't be sure, but it really stinks.
Allow me a moment of disclosure before continuing. For the record, I am employed by Neowin and Neowin has a business partnership with Stardock. I mention this because Stardock's own WindowBlinds application allows you to change the visual style of XP and Vista as easily as could possibly be. The program also allows for visual styles that stray much further from the default Vista Aero interface design than any other option out there.
The problem with WindowBlinds, though, is two-fold. First off, you have to pay for it. Many people simply can't justify the cost, for whatever reasons they may have. More importantly, though, especially to me, is the fact that almost every single visual style created for WindowBlinds is absolutely terrible. If road kill could be applied as a Windows visual style, that's what most of the styles created for the application would look like. Even if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, most of those WindowBlinds visual styles require the beholder to be legally blind to find that beauty. None of the people releasing styles for Stardock's product are nearly as artistic as those guys from the XP days. They want to be, but they simply don't have it
Sadly, what Vista started, Windows 7 will continue. The same tightly controlled visual style system is in place in the heralded upcoming version of Windows and, again, people will have to fight against it to make anything more than a default theme of a different color. WindowBlinds will be there, with ugly visual style children in tow, but that won't matter to most people. Most of us will simply choose to settle with what Microsoft gives us and call it a day.
It's sad to see skinning dying off the way it has been, but, we really have Microsoft and Vista to blame for it. Besides the obvious support issues, I don't know why Microsoft is so insistent on locking down it's theme system so tightly, but it's a downer. Here they are, touting how so many different people are all "a PC" and, yet, we can't let any of that individuality show unless we are willing to pay another company for the privilege. Yes, as some of you made very clear last week, functionality is a lot more important than the looks, but who wants to take a Ferrari engine and put it inside a Kia Sedona? You want that slick racing red body to go with the power within. That's not going to happen, though. At the end of it all, the skinning community is dying and most of it is Vista's fault.