Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Published on May 2, 2008 By Draginol In OS Customization

When it comes to skinning the OS, I'm a fanatic. I've been into changing the look and feel of the OS for nearly 15 years now.  From Object Desktop on OS/2 to working on the very first GUI skinning program on Windows, skinning is a passion of mine.

Over the years, I've seen a lot of programs, companies, and ideas come and go.  On the software side, there's been great programs like eFX and Chroma (to name two) along with the ubiquitous WindowBlinds.  On the content side, there's been teams of artists who have created some cool stuff like Pixtudio, The Skins Factory, SkinPlant, LIghtStar, and so forth.

When Windows XP came out, all of the third-party skinning engines went by the wayside except for WindowBlinds. WindowBlinds had an advantage in that Windows XP came with a skinning engine called uxtheme that was essentially a derivative of WindowBlinds 2 (i.e. they function the same way, have very similar formats, etc.). So rather than being hurt by XP, WindowBlinds got a free boost.

So back in 2001, the skinning world kind of branched into two groups. You had those who used WindowBlinds to skin Windows XP and you had those who used uxtheme to skin Windows XP.  Each solution had its own pros and cons. 

WindowBlinds costs money ($19.95) but had a much wider variety of skins and was a superset of features of uxtheme. 

On the other hand, uxtheme was free but to use it, users had to apply a patch to crack the theme protection. Microsoft didn't want people making skins for uxtheme so they added digital signing protection to their skins. To get around that, hackers patched out that check and allowed the creation of third-party skins for it called msstyles.

So the division in groups largely rested on whether the 20 bucks for WindowBlinds was a sticking points. The people who went with WindowBlinds would say that they have a lot more skins, could use any msstyles skin converted to WindowBlinds and had a lot more features. Users of uxtheme rationalized their choice by pointing out it was free and it wasn't hard to patch the file.

And so for 7 years the two skinning communities developed on a parallel course. WindowBlinds, being a commercial product, continued to be developed over that time. uxtheme, of course, remained unchanged.  Some companies began making skins for money. The first were Pixtudio, The Skins Factory, and Skinplant. They all made skins for WindowBlinds.  But others made pro skins for uxtheme such as LightStar. 

In 2006, Stardock, the makers of WindowBlinds had a new idea for skinning called MyColors.  The idea was that Stardock would create a new group called Stardock Design and go out and partner up with major brands starting with sports teams and universities to sell branded themes. These themes would have the necessary software embedded in them. To make this happen, Stardock Design would also need artists.

The existing studios such as Pixtudio, The Skins Factory, and Skinplant simply couldn't produce enough content per year.  Instead, Stardock Design went out and brought in house the skinners who made up these studios. All of Pixtudio and Skinplant work at Stardock. 

This is where things get interesting...

The owner of The Skins Factory saw Stardock Design as a competitor and relations between the two soured. Moreover, The Skins Factory made it clear that it was going to work to create its own skinning solution rather than rely on Stardock's solution so that it wasn't dependent on what it perceived as a competitor.

Since The Skins Factory was (and still is) a one or two man shop that contracts freelance artists, the steady work at Stardock Design in creating content for major brands led some of the free lancers to join Stardock full time which further soured things with The Skins Factory.

Thus "HyperDesk" was born. Hyperdesk was discussed on WinCustomize considerably so I won't go into all the technical details here. Since it isn't released at the time of this writing, I have to go by informed speculation. It is essentially a uxtheme patch combined with a theme manager that will apply icons, wallpaper, along with specific support for applying skins to specific applications (like Winamp or Media Player).  The problems with patching system files are well known, particularly the long term viability of patching uxtheme.dll from a consumer point of view.

Now for the commentary:

Hyperdesk and MyColors are similar in that the idea is to let people buy a "theme". You want your desktop to look have a complete look? Don't want to mess with a bunch of programs to do it? Then just buy the theme and with the press of a button Hyperdesk or MyColors will apply it.

Hyperdesk seems to go with the longstanding Skins Factory tradition of quality over quantity. Ironically, because they're stuck with uxtheme, they're very limited on the GUI skinning (it's no coincidence that their teasers are limited to shots of the media player as the few hints of the actual skins are pretty typical 8+ year old msstyles based tech which is pretty bland now). They will be hard pressed to approach the quality in their existing portfolio. That's because their existing portfolio was based on the technology that serves as the precursor of MyColors.

MyColors, by contrast, is powered by something that can offer better quality but the need for quantity to get serious distribution attention has spread Stardock Design thin.  This means that there just isn't the marketing bandwidth to spend the time to create an incredible web presentation.

The presentation of say the Hyperdesk Sony Ericson skin absolutely blows away the presentation for MyColors themes.

For example:

MyColors Mustang vs. Hyperdesk Ericson

But you'll notice that they aren't showing very much. They show one icon (which ironically was made by someone who works at Stardock) and just bits of GUI. But the presentation if first rate.  The MyColors Mustang page, by contrast, looks like an page or something.

Because Hyerdesk hasn't been released yet, I can't comment on the actual quality of the Ericson suite.  I can point out some facts that The Skins Factory has made public.  First, it won't support Vista which, in 2008, is pretty catastrophic.  The number of people so into skinning that they'd pay money for premium themes but have stuck with XP is not very large. Secondly, unless Hyperdesk gets a miracle soon, there won't be any significant distribution channels. The uxtheme patching means he won't be getting it preloaded (not to mention the lack of Vista support) and he has no native channels to get started in which has relegated to him to having to post "teasers" in forums.  In fact, this article is probably the most significant publicizing Hyperdesk has received so far.

The thing about selling these all-in-one themes is that it's based on conversation rates. That is, N% (where N is typically less than 2%) of people exposed to it in a significant way will actually buy something.  So if you get 1,000 people to download and try Hyperdesk (or MyColors) you might get 10 to 20 of them to pay for it. 

A decent theme made by non-slave labor costs tens of thousands of dollars to make.  Let's say $10,000 to break even on a minimal theme. If you sell your theme for say $12.95 you're probably netting around $10. This is assuming it's an inspirational theme (i.e. has no royalties attached to it).  To break even, you have to sell 1,000 of them. That means you have to have a channel that can get 100,000 people exposed to it. That's a lot of people - just to break even. And I'm being cheap on the cost.  It costs Stardock Design more than that to produce a suite once you count associated costs.

Worse for Hyperdesk, even if they somehow get a uxtheme patch solution for Vista, the msstyles format on Vista is completely different and doesn't have a nice editor like XP msstyles did.  At the very least, it would require creating a whole new msstyles for Vista which would increase the cost.  So now you're probably closer to $20,000 to produce a single theme -- and this is if it's purely original work. If you were doing, say a Disney based theme, you would have royalties and upfront payments and approvals involved which drive up the costs even further.

The Business Model

Now everything I mentioned here were things we considered when doing MyColors.  The only way MyColors succeeds is if it gets massive distribution. That means getting preloaded or doing special distribution deals with major brands. That's why MyColors uses WindowBlinds OEM technology (its skin format is a bit more restrictive to ensure maximum compatibility). It's also why it includes gadgets. Gadgets can be branded and remote control any media player instead of having to make a skin for a specific media player. 

Over the past year, Stardock has signed on several major distributors and PC makers to begin phasing in MyColors distribution. So by end of this year, MyColors will be on millions of computers.  But this was only possible because a) MyColors doesn't tamper with system files and MyColors has a library of hundreds of themes. Those were the two pre-requisites because most distributors aren't that interested in distributing something that brands them as much as finding ways to generate measurable increases in revenue using their massive distribution. 

And that combination is what I think will be the death blow to Hyperdesk.  You can argue I'm biased or whatever but you can look at the facts for yourself:

  • Companies with big distribution channels aren't that interested in increasing their "brand awareness" with a skin because they already have massive brand awareness because they have big distribution channels.
  • The above companies generate additional income by selling things through their massive distribution channels
  • These companies will only include things likely to make a lot of money which in this case means a large library of content
  • These companies will not tolerate support issues from what they bundle. Hence, something that patches system files is DOA to them. People will flame WindowBlinds but the reality is, it has a long successful history of enterprise-level robustness when the content for it is provided by professionals.
  • These companies will want to support the current version of Windows (obviously).

Without the above criteria satisfied, Hyperdesk can't get massive distribution. And without that, he's stuck selling to the hobbyist community - except Hyperdesk doesn't have a community to sell into. Posting on a personal page on deviantART isn't going to cut it and deviantART isn't going to get into the business of trying to sell a handful of premium themes on their site any time soon.

Now, does that mean you, the reader, shouldn't buy a Hyperdesk theme? Oh no. If it's good stuff, you should buy it. I will probably seriously consider buying Hyperdesk themes if I like the themes. I can, after all, always convert the msstyles to WindowBlinds to avoid patching anything and then I get to run it on Windows Vista.

Comments (Page 1)
on May 02, 2008
very well said. i completely agree.   
on May 02, 2008
Very informative. Good read.    
on May 02, 2008
That's got to be the longest post I've ever read.    Very informative, thanks B.
on May 02, 2008
Another good read 
on May 02, 2008
You can argue I'm biased or whatever

The presentation of say the Hyperdesk Sony Ericson skin absolutely blows away the presentation for MyColors themes.

For example:

MyColors Mustang vs. Hyperdesk Ericson

But you'll notice that they aren't showing very much. They show one icon (which ironically was made by someone who works at Stardock) and just bits of GUI. But the presentation if first rate. The MyColors Mustang page, by contrast, looks like an page or something.

I think the way the article is written and the second quote above both show that it isn't about the first quote above.

Very well stated and a good read.
on May 02, 2008
Awesome read. The marketing and buisness strategy of SD has always been right on target.

I would also add, the SD staff are a cool group of folks. They go out of their way to give the customer their moneys worth, and really make new members feel like family

Many more years SD   
on May 02, 2008
excellent read.  
on May 02, 2008
A very interesting and informative article. Very well written in plain language.I hope other newcomers take the time to read this. In my opinion, once My Colors gets rolling ,there will be no such thing as serious competition. Hyperdesk is a "new" app that won't work with Vista? It's already dead in the water, as far as I'm concerned. One thing though,are you saying Windowblinds is continually improved and updated, works on pretty much any currently used version of Windows,and hasn't gone up in price in seven years? Kinda makes it a "no-brainer" in my book! My Colors may be an infant, but it has excellant bloodlines. I'm looking forward to watching it grow. Thanks for sharing your passion with us,Draginol  
on May 02, 2008
I've read this twice trying to find something to disagree with so as not to look like a sycophantic fanboi.

Unfortunately . . I failed.

But . . Brad *is* a evil, rotten capitalist pig out to make money.

You Brad . . are a jerk face.

So there.

Jerk face!

on May 02, 2008
I forgot to add,if My Colors(Diamond at least), was bundled into a U3 application if possible,would put Stardocks products into millions of pockets. It could come pre-loaded like the other software that comes on a Cruzer Micro or available as a download. Priced right,pretty, and portable too. Just a thought...
on May 03, 2008
Very interesting read although I can't say I necessarily agree with some of your points and assumptions.

I'd be interested on what you have to say about the following:-

It looks like TSF have made a clever choice of opening their campaign with the Sony Ericsson suite which I think will be given away as a 'freebie taster'. I say clever because the Sony Ericsson brand is very popular brand. Disney, too. They will both have large Worldwide appeal. Whereas MyColors seems to currently be mainly but not wholly 'US biased' towards US brands i.e NFL, NBA, US Colleges etc.

Will TSF be paid or receive revenue from the two aforementioned companies? In which case this will offset some of their 'start up' costs whilst they get a foothold into the market.

Despite what you think, companies are always looking for different ways and channels to get their 'brand awareness' out there. The media, internet and other sources are no longer enough for the big players in this world. They are looking to exploit every opportunity of getting their brand in your face and what better way than having a professionally done computer desktop screen sitting looking you in the eye rather than the boring luna/aero interface. If Sony Ericcson and Disney have put money into TSF on this venture then it will be peanuts compared with their overall advertising budget. And what a clever way of getting their brand in front of your face on a day to day basis.

The bottom line is TSF are in this to make money, like any other business. I don't think the distribution issue will be quite as tough as you seem to think but only time will tell. The interesting part will come when they offer the 'paid for' suites. There is substantial income in this area to be made if you can a) produce a suite with popular appeal and good artistic content, pitch it at the right price and c) protect it. c) is becoming a big player as the loss of income from pirating has become more than a big headache for a lot of companies. I know Stardock were going to introduce some form of protection and encryption for MyColors suites but there are many pirate sites around the world offering these suites for free and using even more clever methods of covering their tracks so an search engine won't find them. You don't have to look hard to find half a dozen Sins of Solar Empire suites on different sites and judging by the comments left by some of the downloaders, they are fully functional and virus free.

Personally, I'll be sticking with Object Desktop and Stardock as it gives more of the 'experience' that I am am looking for. I think Hyperdesk will bring more people into the world of customization and many of those people will go on to want more than the Hyperdesk 'experience' can offer. That's where your product comes in and so in a way - if Hyperdesk steals a bit of your thunder from MyColors it may well ignite interest in Object Desktop. Let's face it that's how I and many others like me came to be here. We started changing wallpapers, then got into mss/visual styles and found that we wanted more and then tried Object Desktop and never looked back.

on May 03, 2008

The tone of this is pitch perfect, makes you sound like you're secure enough not to need to add bias.

Why does it take $20,000 to make a skin, anyway?  Is there programming, or just the work of replacing every single button and menu look?

on May 03, 2008

The tone of this is pitch perfect, makes you sound like you're secure enough not to need to add bias.

Why does it take $20,000 to make a skin, anyway?  Is there programming, or just the work of replacing every single button and menu look?

on May 03, 2008

Why does it take $20,000 to make a skin, anyway? Is there programming, or just the work of replacing every single button and menu look?

Mostly the latter...though to alter relocate components such as buttons, etc 'coding' is required...generally handled through SkinStudio.  A typical modern Windowblinds skin requires the creation and seemless integration of numerous images, some of which are multi-state [complex].  Think your average wallpaper image.....multiplied by a factor of 100 and then intended to portray a functioning 3D buttons that 'push'.

It's possibly difficult for a non-skinner to understand just how complicated/involved a skin can become, but in any real-world commercial costing $20,000 is quite legitimate.  I'm both a skinner and an Architect....and often will argue it takes more to 'get it right' with a WB skin than it ever does with a WD....

on May 03, 2008
A professional , original skin can take anywhere from 2-8 weeks to fiinalize depending on complexity of design and functionality....sometimes longer... a suite.. even longer.

Although 20G's may sound like a bundle, many companies have advertising budgets far in excess of 20 g's that are sitting around waiting and looking for an idea that has more bang for the buck..I personally cannot think of a better way to advertise a product than to be on a consumer's desktop 24\7 especially as computer usage continues to grow massively.

Great article. I can't say I disagree because I don't