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 3)
on May 03, 2008
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?
In the last skincast Zoomba said that 25% of teh WC traffic is Vista.
on May 03, 2008
In the last skincast Zoomba said that 25% of teh WC traffic is Vista.

And in the post immediately before yours.

I have to agree with Brad here, on pretty much all counts. I, as I've mentioned before, have worked in the adventure gaming industry for a while. When Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition was released and included the D20 license - a way for smaller companies to build off D&D3e without having to pay for a fresh system design - hundreds of start-up companies emerged

Eight years later, and I can't think of a single company that started as a way to ride the D20 license that's still in business.

If Mr. Schader had come up with a new way of skinning Windows, then this would be a different conversation, and you'd have to start worrying. As it is, he's just "riding the D20" - nothing new and innovative, indeed it's outright broken, but he seems to been taken in by the idea that all he has to do is the art.

I never joined the "D20 industry," which is why I'm still working in the adventure gaming field. When that bubble burst I was far from it, and the companies I worked (and still work) for ultimately emerged stronger (well, for the adventure gaming biz). Competition is good, but defeated competition is often better.

Just some random musings.
on May 03, 2008
Vista now makes up roughly 25% of our traffic.

It's beyond me why anyone would want to release a GUI customization tool and not support Vista, especially with that amount of overall people using it. It's not exactly a huge number of people but it sure isn't one to ignore.
on May 03, 2008

I believe I read somewhere (may have even been in this long thread) that it would support XP initially, but also Vista within 3 months after initial release.
on May 03, 2008
Just my thoughts on the whole thing...
"I don't care if TSF makes the best damn skin on the planet compared to something like The Taj Mahal. I'm not buying it for any reason."
You ask why? Well for one - I just do not care for bashing things to prove whatever point there is to prove.
And Brad has not done that. He has only stated the facts and his business point of views.
Which is a proper way any good CEO would do things.
So ... Vista, XP, SP3, or whatever! I don't care - I will not be buying anything from TSF.

This just a few of my thoughts on the whole thing thus far...

on May 03, 2008
Vista users are growing. . XP, not so much.

Jesh has stated that Vista support will be there sometime in 2008.  I don't know how far away it is . . but I have to wonder if it wouldn't have been better marketing to wait until Vista support was there.
on May 03, 2008
I did post about Hyperdesk before,while i think TSF create and have created brilliant skins,my problem is it has to use uxtheme to patch it.I chose Windowblinds over StyleXP for 2 reasons,it didn't have to patch any system files and offered more content.
I also have a considerable investment in Windowblinds and Iconpackager and wouldn't be too happy if Hyperdesk broke somehow my stardock installations,Or interfered with Windowblinds or Iconpackager in any way,due to the patched files.

on May 04, 2008
Frogboy, why is it that I love to ‘lock horns’ with you? Not sure, but I guess we are both self opinionated SOB’s who like to debate   

Before I reply I would like to make it clear that I don’t know your industry and your company and nor would I dream of telling you how it is - but like everyone here – I’m interested in what goes on in the Customization world. Having been around for five years I’ve learnt a lot and seen a lot so I guess I have a relatively simplistic understanding of what goes on. I don’t profess to have your knowledge or expertise but you love to hang that carrot out there and I can’t resist having a munch on it every now and again.

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

I don't know about huge but I should imagine it will be as popular as any of the MyColors suites. Especially if it's free.

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.

But surprisingly, as it may seem, a lot of adult males have children and kids love Disney. More children are using computers at a younger age – hopefully supervised - and parents can set up separate accounts on the computers. When my little daughter was five she would have killed for a Disney suite. She loved having the ToonXP suite on my PC together with a great Disney or Lilo and Stitch wallpaper. She and I were always on the PC together playing the latest Disney game or some of the other learning activity packs out there and Jeeeeeez, if I dared to change it to one of my favs like CopperDeck or Abracadabra, they’d be hell to pay. So good luck to Jesh with that one. If it’s in the pipeline and successful he’ll make a lot of children very happy. But finacially, who knows?

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? etc etc

Again, you are an 
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 etc

I don't need your advice. I have an interesting background and after getting my degree in Business Management Studies I went onto put those studies into good practice and joined a company that was really underachieving. Eventually I managed to get myself into a position of influence and I used that, together with a fantastic team, to bring the company from a languishing 5th or 6th place in it’s particular field to number 1 in Europe. All by the age of 26. I had achieved too much, too soon and got bored. Money didn’t interest me anymore. I needed another challenge - excitement and adventure - so I packed it in and went and did something completely different. That ‘something’ has been great fun and as a result I’ve given back a lot to my country, the UK and my now adopted home country, the US. Great times and at the moment I’m taking a career break to do the hardest and the best job in the world – look after and bring my five month old son. In the meantime I still keep my ‘hand in’ and during the later part of 2007 I received a call from an old friend whose business was under-performing and he asked me to come in and have a look. I spent three days with him and we made some pretty big changes – out went some of the micro-management style and in came a new marketing strategy together with several other tweaks. Three months later income was up 250 per cent and profits doubled. So I guess I must know something about business……………….

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.

Come out of the time machine??  What a strange thing to say? Very odd. Anyway I digress. Detective work – now you’re in my world!!!! Firstly, I would never put up a link to a pirated copy of your products. That’s just plain stupid and does not sit well with me as many people visit these forums on a daily basis and those who are – shall we say ‘that way inclined’ - will follow the link and grab a free copy. Secondly, you have enough employees who can go out there and do the detective work for you, so you don’t need me. However, totally against all my ethics - but just to prove a point - I decided to download one of SOS suites and give it a look. No viruses and fully functional. Here’s a screenshot of it on my desktop taken this afternoon. The user pic in the start menu is something else that I’m working on so ignore that. In case anyone is wondering – I’ve now deleted the skin and all the files plus the zip folder it came in. So go figure……….

Frogboy, I am one of those people who love the ‘underdog’ and like to see people do well. You were in that position once and you proved to everyone that you’ve got what it takes to be successful and you’ve built up a fantastic operation. I have seen your ‘empire’ grow and looked on, with admiration, at some of your achievements. I don’t suspect for one moment you got everything right at the beginning and you had to change tack on several occasions but determination, good business sense and sheer hard work got you there. I don’t know if Jesh has got ‘ all his ducks in a row’ and is going to make this a success and, Yes, he looks like he’s still got some big mountains to climb but I don’t think it’s quite as bad as the ‘spin’ you put on it. I wish him the best of luck and hope he makes the right decisions because if he doesn’t it will fall flat on its face.
on May 04, 2008
i think TSF create and have created brilliant skins


my problem is it has to use uxtheme to patch it.I chose Windowblinds over StyleXP for 2 reasons,it didn't have to patch any system files and offered more content.
I also have a considerable investment in Windowblinds and Iconpackager and wouldn't be too happy if Hyperdesk broke somehow my stardock installations,Or interfered with Windowblinds or Iconpackager in any way,due to the patched files.

no need. just extract msstyles, convert to windowblinds uis2 format, edit pulldown menu, add perpixel border, please wait, shutdown & logoff dialog background, & screenmask, import toolbar icons, then edit .xp file & add some animation. how hard would that be? need help?
on May 04, 2008

Hi Leo,

It's late here so I won't be able to make quite as long of a post as before.

Let me summarize a few things:

  • You having a degree in business or whatever else does not invalidate the basic issue Hyperdesk faces: To succeed it needs content + distribution + marketing. He lacks all 3. Pixtudio and Skinplant had outstanding content (more than Hyperdesk will start with) but lacked distribution or marketing.
  • Talking about children using computers and such is irrelevant. To reach those children, Hyperdesk needs distribution and marketing that can reach them. And, incidentally, selling IP to the child demograhic is extremely difficult. Just ask how well the various kid-centric PCs have done.
  • Your demonstartion of getting a MyColors (Sins of a Solar Empire) theme running is not complete because you already have WindowBlinds 6. To pirate the Sins MyColors suite they have to first crack WindowBlinds and THEN find a way to extract the MyColors suite.  The number of warez people who are willing to first find a Sins MyColors suite (which is not easy to find) and then get a crack of WindowBlinds is a lot lower than the # of people who have patched uxtheme.dll and simply would need to copy the .msstyles file. 

    Moreover, the Sins of a Solar Empire suite represents less than 1% of the MyColors content. Can you find, for instance, the Detroit Pistons MyColors theme on a pirated site? By contrast, TSF's model is to have just a handful of "very very high quality" themes. Well, if you have 6 themes and 1 of them gets pirated, that's a significant % of your themes. If they're using some sort of DRM or encryption, they might only get a handful of pirates using it. On the other hand, if it's not protected, I suspect the piracy rate of the Hyperdesk content will be 100% (i.e. you'll be able to find all of them on torrent sites) -- assuming it's popular enough to bother with.
  • I root for the underdog too.  Heck, we still host the DesktopX competitor, Samurize for free. WinCustomize allows people to download the content to a lot of differnent programs.  NextStart competes with a number of our programs and we're WinStep's primary distribution channel.  As "competitors" go, TSF is pretty far down the list.

    Again it boils down to: HyperDesk Success = Content * Distribution * Marketing.  It's really that basic.
  • BTW, would anyone like to bet me $100 that there will be no workable Vista Hyperdesk in 2008? That's way longer than 3 months. And by workable, I mean able to run your Hyperdesk themes on XP or Vista and is generally available.


on May 04, 2008
BTW, if the Hyperdesk themes are really good, they can count on me as a customer. I can always convert them to WindowBlinds format and use them natively on my Vista machine and get hardware acceleration on my XP box then.
on May 04, 2008

<I><b>Leo the Lion</b>: Frogboy, why is it that I love to ‘lock horns’ with you? Not sure, but I guess we are both self opinionated SOB’s who like to debate</i>

Maybe you're just amused by the image of a frog and a lion locking horns and that keeps you coming back.

on May 05, 2008
Hi! Frogboy

Excellent and nice reply.

You make some valid points in that post and your previous posts. It all comes down to 'Can he overcome some of those obstacles and bring it off'. Who knows and even after he launches it, it will be some time before a judgement call can be made.

On the pirating side, I forgot about the WB/My Colors software situation. You will already know that the hackers are finding it very difficult to crack WB. There was a discussion on theses forums a few weeks back and I mentioned that I was watching a website where three experienced hackers were trying to hack WB over a period of two weeks. It was fun to watch and they were giving a blow by blow account of their efforts. They tried everything including some very dubious moves.......all to no avail. So you guys seem to have got it pretty tight. On the Detroit theme........I think you know what I'm going to say.......

on May 05, 2008

Brad, this is the first time I've seen you talk about your "business" business.  It's interesting.  I've heard the advice given "Never go into a business where there are substantial nonbusiness reasons for people to enter the business," like bookstores.  That would seem to apply to designing games like Galactic Civilizations.  So I would expect you to make more money as an entrepreneur in an area like skinning that's not naturally fun and requires focusing on execution.

Anyway, I had two questions.  One, this mantra that success = content + distribution + marketing.  Do you remember where you learned that?  It sounds like something from Business 101, but my college didn't offer anything called Business 101.  Or was it from outside reading about how to run a company once you had one?

Second question, who came up with the idea of marketing the skins to the NFL teams?  Seems nonobvious but smart.  Did you get a consultant, think of it yourself, hire a marketing person who alread had ties to the sports teams, or what?


on May 05, 2008
Very interesting reading. Many good points....I might have even learned something.

Personally, I wish Jesh all the success he DESERVES