I had a madeleine moment last night. The Winamp Skin Museum is a window into a time when you thought of your computer’s interface as an extension of yourself. The affordances many people sought from computers were few: play music, surf the net, manage email, contacts, a calendar, word processing, and spreadsheets. Especially during the reign of Microsoft, the tools with which you could accomplish these things were well-realized and ubiquitous. Because of this sameness, people wanted to differentiate themselves from their friends’ or colleagues’ screens. So developers introduced skins and themes, which had in a sense come as a built-in affordance of Windows but never found full flush until Winamp and Stardock made it possible to completely customize the way your computer looked and by extension what it felt like to use.

Now computers are used for many things, and we differentiate by how we use the computer, what we do with it, rather than how it looks or feels. Microsoft’s surface of customization shrank with Aero, and the ability to theme Apple’s operating system was removed as a security precaution. Perhaps this is for the best. The tool matures and the focus shifts from how the tool looks to what the tool does, but I still feel we lost something, that we’ve forfeited a rich avenue of expression. Like all expression, it was messy and ugly and recapitulated its moment, and like a journal it catalogued facets of yourself, a mood ring with a memory. Now it’s a museum on the internet.1

  • I know Linux’s various window managers and UI toolkits have more robust theming options but each of those requires a commitment to applications made within that toolkit or that play well with that window manager. It is neither the same envelope of access for a normal user nor does it offer the same guarantee of compatibility that theming Windows or, later, macOS did.