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Stardock's embrace and extend gambit

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Leading Windows customisation outfit Stardock Systems will release a major rewrite of WindowBlinds, 2.0 in beta form on Monday, and it's available to Object Desktop subscribers now.

It's also another step which Stardock hopes will see it survive and prosper when Whistler is released. This, the next consumer version of Windows, will include some very basic skinning in what Microsoft calls "Visual Styles".

We've been watching the skinning/theming business with some interest, as the eye candy could soon be about much more than simply being an enjoyable way of passing those dead hours of cubicle-time. Given that Microsoft could well be obliged to cede control over what Windows looks like as part of an Antitrust verdict, and that OEMs have for years chafed at their inability to differentiate themselves from other box shifters, we could be looking at the start of a mini-industry. Stardock already has volume customers who use customized WindowBlinds 1.x themes to help users get around the corporate network, or have a button that calls up the BOFH, and some of the new features in 2.0 have been introduced at their request, Stardock CEO Brad Wardell tells us.

"What we're hoping is that we go the route of WordPad vs Office. WordPad comes free with Windows and you can do printing and bold and all the usual stuff - but people still buy Office," he says. "I doubt if anyone has said I don't need Office because WordPad's free."

He might have a point - we remember how during the then Chicago beta phase, few gave Symantec a prayer, because Microsoft had trailed that Windows 95 would have a built-in fax program. Whatever happened to that?

Wardell is encouraged that early Whistler releases have only very modest skinning functionality. But just in case Stardock is deploying an "embrace and extend" strategy of its own. It's got a visual development studio for skin creation, and Wardell says authors will be able to use that to create Whistler skins, then add WindowBlinds features: roll up windows, unique buttons that perform particular actions, and all kinds of new tricks that WB2 can perform, such as vertical text, so the scrollbar can be at the side of a window, reading up. Stardock has more information here. WB2 now also draws at native Windows speed - which we can corroborate - although quite how it does it remains a closely guarded secret.

We're itching to report on the progress of DesktopX, which is only available to Stardock subscribers, but if you can't wait, a growing collection of objects (including a zoomable Mac Aqua dock) awaits you at the Stardock web site. ®

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