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 Amazon.com 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 2)
on May 03, 2008
Great article...very informative. Nice to hear somewhat of the backend of the company I have put my faith in. Thank You
on May 03, 2008
AN excellent article..... many thanks for taking the time away from your work to give us your thoughts. I for one, have never given thought to the cost of making skins, suites etc, and in light of what you and other people have posted here I now have a little understanding as to other factors that you have to take into account when creating software (which must be vastly more costly than the expenditure needed to create a theme). Thank you for enlightening me.
on May 03, 2008
Just wait until Brad figures out how to integrate the AI from GalCivII into Skin Studio . . .

You'll tell the program what you want it to look like, it'll design it all scary-good.

The world will end.

on May 03, 2008

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.

You think that there's a huge demand for people to dress their computers to look like a Sony Ericson? Really?

The Disney argument is more valid but it isn't apparent yet whether the Disney themes will be available on release. 

However how many people do you know want to make their Windows PC look like one of the Disney priincesses?  Do you? Does anyone reading this? Or do you think that the female demographic for skinning PCs is large enough to offset the fact that essentially no males (or straight males anyway) are going to want to have a Cinderella desktop or something.

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.

It depends. I'm not privy to TSF's books.  But in my experience, companies won't pay that much. I know how much TSF received from Alienware when they did themes and it's not enough to help "launch" anything. 

Moreover, how exactly do you envision them getting a foothold? Right now, their "marketing" consists of Jeff, the owner, going onto forums giving sneak peeks.   When the NHL series of skins was released, the NHL put MyColors up on every team website for a month. That's a launch. Is Disney going to put Hyperdeks on their main home page? I highly doubt it.

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.

Wow. You speak as a real authority on the topic. On what basis do you think you are more familiar with these issues than I am?

I didn't say that companies arn't looking for ways to increase their brand awareness. I said companies with existing huge distribution channels are generally not looking to. There's a big difference. 

And you make some big assumptions there about TSF funding.

Let's be accurate here: I obviously believe in the concept of companies creating branded PCs. I was, after all, the guy that started that.  But branded content is only one piece. You have to have distribution channels too. 

You speak as if we're not already doing this today.  We're not running around forums hyping up MyColors. It exists. Today. It doesn't have 2 brands. It has hundreds.  You may poo poo the NCAA teams, NHL teams, NBA teams, Corvette, Mustang, Camaro, and so on but these are pretty major brands, certainly bigger than the Sony Ericson brand.

You also aren't addressing the major challenges they currently face which does them a disservice when you sweep it under the rug.  They're XP only. They have no Vista version coming any time soon.  I know this because as recently as a couple weeks ago they were emailing people asking for help to write a Vista  version.  A vista version is a prerequisite for any serious distribution. 

And as if the above wasn't enough, the uxtheme patching disqualifies them from a lot of major channels.  Hackers may not think patching system files is a big deal but it is for technically savvy companies. I.e. don't expect to see this on Dell or HP or Gateway or Toshiba or other technology company's lists.

The bottom line is TSF are in this to make money, like any other business.

Of course. But lots of companies lose money too.  I run a $20 million company that I founded myself. TSF, after 8 years in business, still hasn't broken a million - not for lack of trying. I think that qualifies me as someone who knows a bit on business.

I don't think the distribution issue will be quite as tough as you seem to think but only time will tell.

And you think this why? Because you like The Skins Factory? Just faith? I put forth concrete, specific, reasons. We've already gone through this with MyColors. The challenges I mention that they face are significant.

Sure, time will tell but no one does them any favors by just closing their eyes and hoping for the best. 

Jeff is a talented art contractor manager. No  doubt about it.  But I think it's pretty obvious he's not a very good business man. Stardock Design made more than TSF in its first year. Like you said, there are huge opportunities out there. TSF could be making a fortune on the opportunities out there.  But I don't think Hyperdesk is going to succeed.

I'll happily eat crow if I'm wrong. But when it comes to business, I'm not often wrong.

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.

Again, you are an expert..how? 

Let me give you some very basic business advice: The sales of a product or service are dependent on the combination of content, distribution, and marketing. All 3 have to be in place to succeed. Missing even 1 is doom. Hyperdesk has none of the 3.

He's launching with, at best, 5 or so "hypersutes" (recoloring the Ericson suite 4 times does not count as 4 suites).  That is about 95 short of what he needs to have enough content to be a major player.

He has no likely major distribution channels.  No major OEMs, no major channel partners. He won't even be on Alienware which would have been low hanging fruit.

And he has no marketing. His marketing consists of hyping his relatively unknown website and making repetitive forum posts on skin sites. No magazine ads. No TV ads. No retail promotions, etc.

 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.

Leo, I really respect your earnestness here, but you need to come out of the time machine here.

MyColors protects its content TODAY. Its skins are encrypted TODAY. You can go on any bittorrent site and try to find a MyColors theme. Good luck. they aren't there.  Feel free to post a link to a Sins of a Solar Empire MyColors theme here. 

I just checked the major torrent sites and binary news groups. They'e not there.  That doesn't mean someone somewhere hasn't pirated it. But let's face it, piracy is about reducing lost sales through illegal distribution.  Unless Hyperdesks protects its content, the .msstyles files will be out all over the place pretty quickly. After all, he's trying to sell .msstyles into a market that is full of people used to cracking system files and doing so for 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

Hyperdesk could bring more people into the world of customization if it had a real business plan behind it.

I obviously believe in the concept of Hyperdesk, we've been doing it successfully for over a year now with MyColors. 

The problem isn't the quality of the themes. It's not the idea.  It is that any successful product must have content + distribution + marketing.  Without those 3 things, it's doomed. Doesn't matter what the product is, how good it is, or how cool the idea is. Success requires those 3 things. It's basic business.

I think I began to think Hyperdesk was doomed when I started seeing Jeff personally making multiple "teaser" posts on WinMatrix. I think that was the point we realized that Hyperdesk was in trouble.

Can you imagine if Stardock Design went around to WinMatrix and made a post each time a new MyColors theme was released? There's like 150 of them with new ones coming out each week. Hell, how often do you even see Stardock itself promoting a particular MyColors theme. Not too often, not even on its own sites. That's because these websites are simply not big enough to "get the word" out in a meaningful way. We only need to promote MyColors as a whole. 

Like you said, Leo, time will tell. But the issues I brought up in the article have to be addressed as well as the basic business model.

on May 03, 2008
Without trying to sound too asskissery, this is an extremely valid post Brad, I find myself wanting to add to what you state when you post on these issues but because I am in such total agreement, I can't think of anyone in the industry more qualified to offer concise insight into the business aspect.. all I can do is nod and perhaps shoot you 1 Karma point.   

Oh and please, stay away from crow, I hear it's really boney, not that, in this case you will be eating any.
on May 03, 2008
Only thing I happen to be curious about is Vista support. So far the two preview shots I've seen are of themes for "Windows XP SP1, SP2 and SP3". There is no mention of Vista, and in the current point and time I doubt that's a very good business move.
on May 03, 2008
At taking the risk of being labeled a fanboi. I have watched SD start from a small niche company, to the most popular desktop customization provider in the world. The SD team have taken the opportunity to fill a market void and ran with it. Brads market strategy,business savy and vision brought SD out of the shadows and in to mainstream computing.( not to mention he offered some pretty awesome software). I foresee great things for SD ahead.


Yes I am a fan , by no means get me wrong. But im not a fan because I like the software alone. I have seen Brad as well as the rest of the SD staff help people out on many occasions with issues from other software beyond SD's line of products. When was the last time you saw folks at any other company helping people on other software that could be deemed competition? I mean really help them get it working, not just tell them to uninstall it and buy a SD product. This and the fact they offer the customer truly what they believe is their moneys worth in goods and service, is just the surface of why I stick with SD and their products.


The software is awesome, but the people behind it really make the company shine.


on May 03, 2008
You think that there's a huge demand for people to dress their computers to look like a Sony Ericson? Really?
The Disney argument is more valid but it isn't apparent yet whether the Disney themes will be available on release.
However how many people do you know want to make their Windows PC look like one of the Disney priincesses? Do you? Does anyone reading this? Or do you think that the female demographic for skinning PCs is large enough to offset the fact that essentially no males (or straight males anyway) are going to want to have a Cinderella desktop or something.



First of all.., I’m no one side, secondly(here i go... ): Frogboy, is it really necessary to point something like that? i mean, i have seen and try almost 50% of all the skins from TSF and i have also seen and try some the Stardock Design group skins.., to be honest, both studios are great in certain way..., but at the same time both of them have some issues.., as you have say, maybe not many users will enjoy using a Disney or a SE skin.., but how many do you think it will enjoy to use Toon-XP? Or Aquarium? Maybe not many would like the color setup or the style or whatever you would like to mention.., it's a matter of what i want as a costumer, my preference and taste. No one can force me to use something I don’t like and really, if a studio want to became the best in what it do, it needs to stop criticizing the work from the competition.

My third point is, one goal that TSF has achieve is that they make 100% complete skins, I could be wrong on this but as I say, I have only try (I think) 50% of their skins, they have a great style but, and I already put this in a comment on one of their skins time ago, they keep using the same colors and style, and that is not quite good. Now, Stardock Design group have shown some unique skins and great colors setup, but some skins aren’t 100% complete(right now it only came 1 to my head but don’t worry, I’ll remember) and some other skins have some colors that I.., as a costumer don’t like.
That’s all, so please don’t start with the “I haven’t seen you post any WB skin” or “show us you skills dude”.., because I’m a costumer and as a costumer I’m free to state my opinion.
on May 03, 2008

and really, if a studio want to became the best in what it do, it needs to stop criticizing the work from the competition.

TYCUS ...Frogboy wasn't /isn't criticizing the 'competition's' work, but the economic viability of their business model.  Most everyone agrees that TSF's artistic offerings are amongst the best there are, but many are waiting Hyperdesk's release to gauge just how workable/successful it will be in spite of its potential short-comings [eg lack of [initial] Vista compatibility]...

on May 03, 2008
TYCUS ...Frogboy wasn't /isn't criticizing the 'competition's' work, but the economic viability of their business model. Most everyone agrees that TSF's artistic offerings are amongst the best there are, but many are waiting Hyperdesk's release to gauge just how workable/successful it will be in spite of its potential short-comings [eg lack of [initial] Vista compatibility].



Exactly I loved TSF's awesome skins they were and still are among my favorites. I will not bother with the Hyperdesk if it entails me hacking any files on my PC to run. That reason standing I'll stick with SD products.
on May 03, 2008
I think it's a bit too much too soon. This will be a good post to review a couple months after release.
on May 03, 2008

First of all.., I’m no one side, secondly(here i go... ): Frogboy, is it really necessary to point something like that? i mean, i have seen and try almost 50% of all the skins from TSF and i have also seen and try some the Stardock Design group skins.., to be honest, both studios are great in certain way..., but at the same time both of them have some issues.., as you have say, maybe not many users will enjoy using a Disney or a SE skin.., but how many do you think it will enjoy to use Toon-XP? Or Aquarium? Maybe not many would like the color setup or the style or whatever you would like to mention.., it's a matter of what i want as a costumer, my preference and taste. No one can force me to use something I don’t like and really, if a studio want to became the best in what it do, it needs to stop criticizing the work from the competition.

Tycus, it's a much more basic financial question than what you seem to be implying:

How many male users are going to run a female oriented skin?

I think it's a legitimate question to be asked: If most of your initial premium content is targeting the female demographic then what affect do you think that will have on sales.

What criticism do you think I'm providing? Am I criticizing their work? No. Am I criticizing their basic concept? No. Am I criticizing the behavior or personality of TSF? No.

All I am doing is giving my opinion on a pretty significant new skinning project in terms of its business model.

If you want to talk about "Criticism" you should see the things Jeff Schader, the CEO of The Skins Factory publicly says about Stardock on forums like WinMatrix and on his deviantART page (which he usually deletes later after being shamed for his behavior by others). He's claimed our software is "buggy", that we don't have any QA. That artists like Treetog and others aren't good artists, that I'm full of FUD.  That Stardock software "doesn't work".  

No where will you find a post by me attacking The Skins Factory or insulting them or putting down their artwork.  The only criticism I have is that they are patching system files (and feel free to make the case that patching system files is not controversal) and given my view that their business strategy isn't viable.  Personally, I think Jeff knows it's doomed. Right around the time he started posting on forums about his product as a means of promotion.   But hey, Hyperdesk will be out very soon. We'll all be able to judge for ourselves.

My third point is, one goal that TSF has achieve is that they make 100% complete skins, I could be wrong on this but as I say, I have only try (I think) 50% of their skins, they have a great style but, and I already put this in a comment on one of their skins time ago, they keep using the same colors and style, and that is not quite good. Now, Stardock Design group have shown some unique skins and great colors setup, but some skins aren’t 100% complete(right now it only came 1 to my head but don’t worry, I’ll remember) and some other skins have some colors that I.., as a costumer don’t like.

Define "complete".

From what Jeff has publicly stated a Hyperdesk theme will include an msstyles, a wallpaper, a Media Player and/or Winamp skin, some icons. Since they're not using IconPackager, they're not likely to be changing anywhere near the # of icons that IconPackager does. And since it's uxtheme, a lot less of XP will be skinned (and none of Vista obviously).

A typical Stardock Design creation includes a WindowBlinds skin, a wallpaper, a very large icon package, a universal media player gadget and a weather gadget. They also often come with additional content such as Logon screens and a CursorFX theme.

So I'd have to get a definition of what complete means.

on May 03, 2008
[eg lack of [initial] Vista compatibility]...

I was honestly looking forward to seeing how this works. But after hearing it won't even support Vista I've pretty much lost all interest in it.

Out of curiosity how much of the daily traffic accounts to Vista users? I'm guessing it's not a number that you can just shrug off?
on May 03, 2008
Out of curiosity how much of the daily traffic accounts to Vista users?



 heres 1 .
on May 03, 2008

Vista now makes up roughly 25% of our traffic.