Compatibility woes derail Windows XP Visual Styles

The curse of the Appearance tab


While complaining loudly about how Luna was supposedly aping Mac OS X's Aqua look this week, Apple advocates have missed an unwitting homage to Cupertino from Redmond. Microsoft appears to be mirroring the same tactical retreat from opening the Windows platform for theming, much as Apple made with its Appearance Manager four years ago. The two tales have uncanny similarities.

We first heard the rumour that Microsoft was dropping plans to "skin" Microsoft XP during Comdex. Now Redmond says it won't be releasing those theming APIs to developers. It's also likely that Microsoft will attempt to control the third party themes by bouncing digitally signed themes off the system.

To be fair to Microsoft, it never actually said that its 'Visual Styles' would be part of the final XP release; and to be scrupulously fair, Microsoft has never claimed that the gentle makeover offered by Visual Styles would offer those outlandish, full blown skins you can find over at skinz.org. Then again, it didn't exactly bust a gut to dispel those misapprehensions, either.

Look closely at the screenshots of the Windows XP Luna UI unveiled this week for a clue. Not one of the official screenshots shows a third party application being themed. Not even a Microsoft application:- you'll see a log-on screen, the start menu and the My Pictures folder, but no apps. According to beta testers that's because Visual Styles can't applications compatibility: with some UI elements such as Adobe's tabbed palattes, its simply breaks; and Luna is simply a Visual Style theme.

With themes representing a cosmetic feature, rather than a significant infrastructure enhancement, it makes little sense for Microsoft to break application compatibility. And with a significant legacy installed base of users, creatures of habit, both Apple and Microsoft have good reason to restrict the customisation that full blown skins potentially offer. Apple's Appearance tab, like um, Whistler's Appearance tab still maintains the same three windows controls in the same positions.

Apple touted Copland as a themable OS, but continued the idea into Mac OS with its Appearance Manager. Kaleidoscope changed its formats to be compatible with Appearance Manager, but Apple went cold on the idea. Appearance Manager still ships, but with the Platinum theme as the only option.

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