Skinning & Theming: Why Is It So Underestimated?

Skinning does not really receive the appreciation it deserves. After posting my comparison article about LiteStep and Talisman, I was astonished to (still) hear people say that skinning and theming is useless. They literally said:“I’m all for an alternative shell especially if it is more stable, but I think the whole skinning things is a waste of time. Personally if you like the look and feel of an OS that you are not running then you need to switch to that OS. I think that it is kind of foolish to want Windows to look like NeXT, Aqua, or OSF/Motif. If you want your Windows system to work like *NIX then move to a *NIX platform. If you want it tool look like Mac, BeOS, OS/2, etc… Move to that platform. If you are unwilling to give up your MS Applications, deal with the GUI they provide. You’ll find that your productivity goes up if you focus on using the computer vs. trying to change its appearance.”

Note: The author is not a native english speaker so please forgive any grammar mistakes.

I have seen these reactions before. I do not get this. So, do you wear the same outfit day in day out, your whole life? Do you have your hair exactly the same way, day in day out, your whole life? Do you never give your house a paint job? Do you never rearrange your living room? I do not think so.

For me, skinning is not necessarily about adding extra functionality; it is more about making things look better. That is what everyone does, their whole lives. You wear the clothes you like, because (you think/hope) they make you look better. It is also something that you can use to set yourself apart from the rest. When my not-so-interested-in-computers friends come over, they are always impressed with my latest themed & skinned Windows/Mandrake desktop (I once received the response: “Wow, do you have Mac OS X now, on your PC? Cool!”)

The statement that you should not make your OS look like one it is not, does not really make any sense. If that is true, then you should not add any extra GUI features to Linux, you should not install X, you should not install KDE or Gnome, you should just resort to the command line. Does that make sense? No it does not. KDE and Gnome (the two major window managers for X) have a very strong resemblance to Windows’ standard shell, Explorer. Although they tend to move their own separate ways these days, they still have the same layout as introduced by Windows ’95 (introduced to the masses, that is, it was not that refreshing). The same of course goes for Windows. It still features the same layout as it did eight years ago.

I do not know about the rest of us, but I am not willing to use the same general layout on several different operating systems for a longer period of time. And that is were themeing and skinning come in extremely handy. It comes down to this: after eight years of being bored, I want something new. And if the ‘companies’ won’t give it to me, then I will have to make sure I will get is somewhere else!

Skinning is more of a personality thing. I want the things around me to be beautiful (sounds kind of arrogant, doesn’t it?). I have bought a black keyboard, a black trackball, a black 5.1 surround set for my PC, instead of the standard PC beige/grey. Why? Certainly not because they are cheaper (the black edition of my keyboard actually cost me about five euros more). Also not because they are more functional in any way (because they are not). I only did so because it lookes a whole lot better. The next steps I am willing to take is to start ‘modding’ my case (right now it is placed as much out of sight as possible), and to spend (too much) money on a slick 19″ flat screen TFT (hopefully a Nuevo).

But skinning is not only about eye-candy. It can definitely add extra functionality. If you need every square millimeter of your screen, a minimalistic theme would come in very handy. And how about public computers? Let’s say, computers in a city hall, or in a museum. You could configure the shell in such a way that only the functions people need on that public computer, can be accessed. Another thing it can be great for is multimedia computers (you know, those things with TV/radio-cards, DVD players, remote control and all that), placed in your living room. You could configure it to only show buttons/icons for the DVD player, the VCR function, and so on. Very handy since some families tend to have kids running around. This way they won’t be able to mess up your PC. And, if you use a free alternate shell to accomplish this, it will save you the extra money you have to pay for Windows XP MCE. Nice examples can be seen on the Talisman website (

What Is Wrong With It?

Now, why is skinning so underestimated then? I think it has to do with the fact that geeks consider a flashy and shiny interface ‘end-user-like’ and unprofessional, while, on the other hand, the end-user finds it geeky and too professional.

So who does like skinning? I think there is a group, between the end-user and the geek. They are too technical to be considered end-users, but they are not technical enough to be geeks. They do not program, nor do they want to learn how to. On the other hand, they do try out other operating systems. They just do not know of all the underlying technical stuff.

This group is small, very small. I think you can compare it to climbing a mountain, in order to get a good view. Some people loose there courage when at the foot of the mountain. They sit down and think: “This ain’t for me!” They are the end-users. Others become more and more enthusiastic when they reach the mountain. They immediately start climbing, they fall down once in a while, but they keep on trying, and eventually they reach the top. They are the geeks (by the way, I am not using this term in a negative way). Then you have that middle group. They also start climbing, but with less enthusiasm. They do not fall down, but they do move at a much smaller pace than the geeks do. Eventually, they just had it with this climbing thing. They sit down, and enjoy the view. They might move up little, they might move down a little. But they do not reach the top, they do not see the use in that; the view is also beautiful here.

The end-users look up and they see the middle group. “God, they are bunch of mountain rangers!” The end-users do not see the geeks; they are too high to be seen. The geeks look down and see the middle group as well. “Bunch of quitters!” they think.

Well, in that middle group is where you will find the skinners. Considered geeks by the average user, and considered computer illiterate by the technical users. They reside in between. Imagine what would happen if the geeks stretched out their hands in order to get some of the middle group at the summit? We would finally see some graphical ‘user’ interfaces for a change, instead of just graphical interfaces.


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