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Apple patents desktop themes

Watch out, Whistler...

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Microsoft's plan to providing Windows XP (aka Whistler) with interface themes (aka skins) may be knocked on the head by Apple, which has patented desktop themes.

The patent, granted on 13 February from an application made way back in May 1998, covers "systems and methods for providing a user with increased flexibility and control over the appearance and behaviour of objects on a user interface are described.

"Sets of objects can be grouped into themes to provide a user with a distinct overall impression of the interface. These themes can be invoked by calling a corresponding theme engine."

The patent is number 6,188,399, and you can read it in full here. It follows on from an earlier patent, 5,959,624, covering a "system and method for customising appearance and behaviour of graphical user interfaces".

That's a pretty comprehensive description of how skinning works, whether on an application by application basis, or across an entire UI. Presumably Apple will now be demanding royalties from everything from WinAmp to Windows.

Or maybe not. We were interested to learn that Apple's original patent application was made a mere eight days after well-established UI enhancements-oriented Web site Themes.org was launched, on 25 April 1998. Themes.org - for those not in the know - provides stacks of modified interface widgets for the main Linux GUI window managers, including KDE, Enlightenment (Gnome's WM), WindowMaker, AfterStep and Blackbox.

Prior art? Certainly, but we can't really see the entire Linux skinning community going to court over it, despite their numerous run-ins with Apple's legal team over the various Classic MacOS and MacOS X interface widgets that have been 'borrowed' for other windowing systems.

Most recently it got snotty over Stardock, which had developed a system called DesktopX that incorporated a look and feel that the Mac maker thought a tad too similar to MacOS X's Aqua GUI, as you can see from this screenshot. Now here's the interesting thing: since then, Microsoft has signed Stardock as the official supplier of theming software for Windows XP. Stardock's WindowBlinds software hooks into Whistler's Visual Styles system to provide customisable interfaces.

The double irony here is that Whistler's standard GUI has already been slammed by Mac enthusiasts for its resemblance to Aqua. Actually, it's not that close - it's just a more vividly coloured, blue-tinged version of the standard Windows GUI. But numerous Register readers did point out just how Microsoft's screenshot of Whistler's graphical user log-in screen does use a number of icons already used by MacOS 9's graphical user log-in screen.

A deliberate reference to Microsoft's influence, or just coincidence? It's hard to say. Oh, and Windows XP now has the Recycle Bin at the bottom right of the screen, just where the MacOS has always had its Trash Can.

It will be interesting to see if Apple whips this one out once Windows XP has started shipping outside of a beta test programme.

But back to Themes.org, which may not be quite so prior as some have claimed. Apple's earlier themes patent, 5,959,624, was filed in January 1997, long before Themes.org appeared on the scene. ®

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MS co-opts Stardock for WinXP skins
Apple rattles lawyers at DesktopX over Aqua

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