Exclusive: Windows XP Testers Get UI Theme Tool

When it became apparent that Microsoft was integrating UI theming capabilities (the ability to easily modify all aspects of the UI) into Windows XP, users expected the company to release some sort of theme toolkit so they can make their own UI themes (or skins). But in private conversations with Microsoft last year, I discovered that the company had no plans to do so. Microsoft was concerned that wildly divergent UIs would make Windows XP harder to support, so the company decided to hold off on any such tool, at least through the Windows XP release to manufacturing (RTM). Microsoft engineers I spoke with explained that someone would eventually figure out how to create custom themes for Windows XP.

And the inevitable has happened--a lot sooner than anyone expected. Stardock, maker of the popular WindowBlinds GUI extension for Windows, has created a special version of WindowBlinds that integrates into the Windows XP UI and lets users choose from a much wider range of themes than the base OS allows. What's most amazing, however, is that Microsoft has agreed to make this extension available to the Windows XP technical beta testers from the company's internal servers. A week before the Beta 2 release of Windows XP, users already have access to the tools they need to make Windows more personalized.

"Windows XP is the first natively 'theme-aware' OS, and it comes with two visual styles (Whistler Style and Windows Classic)," Stardock told me earlier this week. "However, Microsoft has indicated that it has no plans to allow third parties to make their own visual styles for obvious technical support reasons as well as branding reasons. Thus, beta testers who want to be able to add their own skins are encouraged to get Stardock's WindowBlinds XP." The product lets users add their own skins to Windows XP, and these skins are displayed in the UI next to Microsoft's own visual styles. Users won't see any difference between a Microsoft-created visual style and a WindowBlinds skin--and anyone can make WindowBlinds skins.

"Windows XP is a great opportunity for us at Stardock," said Brad Wardell, the WindowBlinds product manager. "It will give millions of users a taste of how customizing their Windows PCs can improve not just their productivity but the enjoyment of using their PCs. WindowBlinds XP will introduce those millions of users to our Object Desktop extension suite."

I've been testing WindowBlinds XP on the latest builds of Windows XP, and the effect is as expected: Rather than add a separate application and UI, the product integrates into the Display Properties dialog box and works like part of the OS. WindowBlinds XP features several themes, including the lost Professional theme, which Microsoft dropped in favor of the Whistler (code-named Luna) UI. WindowBlinds XP is currently in beta and is available to Windows XP testers privately or from Stardock's ObjectDesktop.net subscription network. WindowBlinds 2.12 is available for all versions of Windows. For more information, visit the Stardock Web site.

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