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Skins! For Browsers!
2000-04-11 02:10:14

Art Fux
'Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul'? Deal!
-- Miles Standish


"Welcome to Fruity Gum," it says above the web browser's address bar. The "back" and "forward" buttons are red and white squares that look like Chiclets. And the icon loading the bookmark file is an orange circle with yellow arrows pointing in all directions, over a purple-and-red honeycomb pattern.

They're skins, ladies and gentlemen. Skins! The preview version of Netscape 6 and various versions of Mozilla now includes the ability to change around the color scheme, icons, and other attributes on the interface -- just like the countless skins for mp3 players! (Their design strategy is simple: Why just have an mp3 player when you can have an mp3 player that displays a picture of Christina Aguilera or the Mountain Dew logo while it endlessly scrolls the titles of your mp3s.)

The browser skin I've tested most is "Fruity Gum," based on an earlier skin called Aphrodite that Open Source coders developed. It's the browser of the future -- fulfilling that long-standing wish to replace the standard-issue green with -- something else! The thing I like is when you hold your mouse over the buttons, grey vertical bars move across them. And at the bottom of the menus, Alphanumerica's developers put pictures of dragons holding office supplies. Just because they could.

The people behind "Fruity Gum" call it a design that "might not make your surfing experience any more useful, but it will certainly make it more fun." (For some reason, the page announcing the skin even linked to "") Right now it's nearly impossible to use if you want to do anything other than marvel at the interface -- all your bookmarks become illegible. But no matter how stupid it may seem, the novelty is there.

Soon we'll see browsers with anime and headshop psychedilia, as "browser skin authoring tools" let everyone try their hand at design toolbars. Browser designers will find themselves competing with the authors of GeoCities web pages about Knight Rider desktop themes. And everyone will be yapping about how the user interface is finally more DIY. Some people are saying this is a bad thing that will destroy user interface design as we know it -- but the ability to switch skins is already being coded into future versions of Mozilla. For better or worse, they're here.

I've seen the future, and it's skins.

Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.

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