Does Windows 7 return customization to the forefront?

For years it seemed like every new application and operating system was touting its "skinning" capabilities. Then, abruptly, this trend stopped with the release of Windows Vista as developers began to return to providing a more consistent experience for PC users.

To new visitors of Neowin, having a front page story on skinning might seem unusual. Yet, Neowin got its start largely tracking skinning technology back in the run-up to "Whistler" (what became known as Windows XP). Neowin and its users have long tracked the ebb and flow in the popularity of skinning.

At one time, Neowin contained a side-bar dedicated to customization sites and the skinning forums on Neowin were the most popular. Windows Vista and more specifically Aero (the name for the user interface present in Windows Vista and Windows 7) made Windows look nice enough on its own that skinning and customization programs fell out of favor.

Part of the problem is that many of the the skins for these customization programs were either ugly, could affect performance for some people, or showed incompatibilities with lesser known programs. In the age of Windows XP, users tolerated these issues. With Windows Vista and now 7, the drawbacks are no longer worth the benefits that these programs offered.

While programs like Object Desktop, Winamp, Firefox skins, Google Chrome skins, and so forth remain popular, there is no doubt that the skinning features of these programs are no longer major competitive features. Media Player 12 still technically has skins but it no longer comes with any.

That isn't to say that users don't use skins anymore. Sites like WinCustomize.com and deviantART continue to attract millions of monthly visitors. However, I think it is safe to say that skinning, that was once on the verge of becoming ubiquitous has returned to being the niche once was.

Does this mean that customization is over for Windows users? Developers such as Stardock (full disclosure: I work there in addition to Neowin) believe that customization needs to evolve with the times. This month, it released next-generation versions of two of its most popular desktop customization programs that put that question to the test.

DeskScapes 3, as we reported last week, gives Windows users the ability to play animated wallpapers. But unlike previous versions, it also enhances existing "static" wallpapers. In essence, all those Photoshop effects users might play with to tweak images to be proper desktop backgrounds are part of the program (except that it works on the image in memory rather than changing the actual file). A host other features have been added that are designed to "customize" what is already there rather than replace (i.e. skin). See a video example here.

Yesterday, WindowBlinds 7 was released. Unlike every previous version of WindowBlinds, version 7 doesn't focus on providing ever fancier skinning options but rather includes a new option to skin Aero itself. Or more accurately, to customize Aero beyond what the OS provides as well as customizing existing skins (adding textures and color mixing and such) so that users aren't spending all their time hunting for a "visual style" they like and instead tweaking the ones they already like.

This video on our partner site, WinCustomize.com helps give the Neowin perspective on the matter.

The challenge skinners and skin program developers alike are likely to face in the age of Windows 7 is whether users want to replace (skin) their programs or whether they are looking for tools to simply enhance/customize what they already have. Of course, like always, most users won't even change the default desktop background or color - life for those users will continue as it always has.

View: Neowin: Customizing Windows 7 forum
View: Neowin: Skinning forum
View: Neowin: WindowBlinds forum

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