Anyone who’s used computers for more than a decade will remember the word “themes” with equal amounts of nostalgia and revulsion.
In days of yore, “themes”—packs of sound files, wallpapers and icons that changed the look of your Windows desktop—were the gold standard of customization. The Internet was—and still is—full of themes for any political, religious or pop culture leanings, from Ganesh to Cyborg Kuro-chan.
For every computer that replaced the staid blue of the default Windows look with a sleek black or cool aquamarine, thousands would choose to convert their desktops into a dystopian fuchsia nightmare, complete with a horribly stretched wallpaper that made family members look eerily alien.
Themes have gradually become more complex and all embracing. More than mere modification, they now seek to simulate or experiment with entirely new ways of interacting with a desktop. On the simplest level, stand-alone programs such as WindowBlinds allow you to radically alter the look and feel of the user interface beyond basic colour scheme changes. WindowBlinds offers an impressive collection of possible modifications—from the minimalist to the bling-heavy. A popular modification is to make the Windows desktop feel like Apple’s OS X, a task achieved by using a combination of programs such as Rocketdock and Deskspace.
Taking things a step further are full-blown desktop replacements. Bumptop is a 3D desktop for Windows that seeks to make your computer screen feel like a real-world desk. Icons become solid items which can be stacked and piled, or thrown around. Things such as photos or notes can be “pinned” to the “walls” of the “desk”. It also uses a significant amount of “physics” to make interactions feel more natural. A poorly balanced stack of icons can collapse into a pile, and icons can be flung across the desktop in fury, where they clatter and bounce convincingly. Bumptop is a Toronto-based company started by Anand Agarawala and Ravin Balakrishnan, and emerged from research on using physics and touch-centric interactions to rethink the “metaphor of the desktop”.
Organize: Bumptop is a 3D desktop that mimics a real-world desk.
Days after Microsoft revealed its primary-colour inspired, radical user interface for the upcoming “Windows Phone 7 Series” mobile phones, a stunning program became available on the Internet that allowed you to simulate what that interface would feel like on a normal computer. The Windows Phone 7 interface uses a series of brightly coloured boxes to represent different categories (such as Contacts, Applications, Photos) and widgets that provide instant visual information on, for example, the weather, unread messages and social network updates. The modification for the PC seeks to recreate this on a computer desktop—it uses a combination of theme program Rainmeter and custom-packs it for Omnimo . The combination alters your desktop to an almost unrecognizable degree, replacing it with a stark, minimalist and arguably more productive environment.
Themes have also taken over the individual programs that people use. Music player Winamp has long been a favourite of the theme-making community. Called “skins”, Winamp’s “Skin database” has around 2,000 skins in 14 categories. Browser Firefox, in its 3.6 release, finally gave in to popular demand and added official support for themes, or “Personas”. Last week, an interesting service called “iPad Peek” was launched. It allows you to convert your browser window into a faux iPad, to see how popular websites will look on Apple’s upcoming device. It even allows you to switch between landscape and portrait mode—making the utility more than just a mere theme. iPad Peek becomes, then, not just a visual tweak, but a useful tool for programmers and site owners to see how their websites fare, simulating their performance on an upcoming device.
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