It’s so obvious...


The latest generation of killer apps (the Trillian IM client, linux’s XMMS audio player system, the lamentably-dead Nullsoft’s WinAmp) all came with a feature allowing “skinning”. Much like our own epidermis, the guts underneath are pretty uniform - but by wrapping the application in a new skin you could make it ‘yours’.

Every college student knows the magic of a sofa cover - turn that hideous inherited couch into a sea of pastel blue thanks to a sofa cover.

A visual example should help you see just how much the same application can vary between two skins. Here’s a link to skins for XMMS.

Whiz bang, lay a skin on it and it went fro being kinda a boring simulacrum of a CD player to something sexy, glossy, and amazing. It’s “Pimp my Ride” for my desktop, American Chopper for your Comp’ter.

But all this is eye-candy – where’s the mind-candy that’s right, why don’t the applications we use the most allow us a flexible set of arcana commands to transform their visual layout or core functionality flexibly?

David Allen offers a kit that will mutate your MS-Outlook to match his productivity system Getting Things Done - but this seems like a script to create folders with names that adherents to his system will recognize and benefit from.

Ultimately though, the substrate remains the same: Outlook and Allen’s method but only a “skin”. The extensibility of Outlook is pretty small. As the guys at West Coast Custom who customize the jalopys on MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” have demonstrated, you can only “pimp” that which has the “pimp” spirit within. Sometimes things are “unpimpable”.

Allen’s system has “pimped” outlook as for as it can go, it’s maximized the “skin”. If we want to go subdermal, we need something better, something that Microsoft can’t get to (barring an amazing commitment to revolution)…

I think this is where The Mozilla Group got it right. They defined a meta-language that lets a moderaltely savvy computer user change the functionality of core pieces of Mozilla (XUL is the name of the language). In this age where more and more everyone who is good in their job knows how to write a bit of code (as indispensible as knowing a bit of Spanish in California) the desire to customize a bit will be in demand.

Or, like the Chopper gurus of Orange Coast Custom, will not the wealthy or well-heeled seek software that let’s them be them better and faster? Microsoft asks you where you want to go today - but only on their terms, with the blase tools they offer within the limits of their stifling non-disclosure agreements.