Microsoft recently offered a first look at the user interface in the next version of Windows and got a mixed response from the IT community.

But at least one feature of Windows XP is sure to please users who want to customize the look of their OS. Here is how XP will allow you to “skin” the OS to produce a unique look for your interface.

Windows XP—for eXPerience— is a much better name than Windows 6. But Windows XP is more than a snappy name. Microsoft hopes this release, scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2001, will be the great unifying version of Windows. Windows Me was the last of the 9x line based on the DOS kernel. With Windows XP, Microsoft is merging the Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000 product lines into one Windows OS based on the proven NT kernel.

Windows Me altered the user interface in the same snail-paced fashion experienced in the move from Windows 95 to 98. The look was altered to be more attractive and user friendly for people using the computer for fairly simple, undemanding applications.

Graphical User Interface (GUI) design in Windows has been diverging for the last few years, and critics believe the Windows GUI leaves a lot to be desired. With XP, the GUI is coming together quickly.

Microsoft’s solution is to skin the interface. The procedure is not breathtaking in its originality, but it is a move likely to please most people most of the time. While this strategy is nothing new for fans of WinAmp, Stardock WindowBlinds, and Windows Media Player 7, the procedure can be compared to the GUI equivalent of customizing the sound scheme.

The new look
Computer enthusiasts caught a glimpse at what MS was going to do with the GUI in Windows XP with the release of Windows Media Player 7 and its fully customizable interface. Media Player 7 allows users to change the look and feel of the application via the use of downloadable skins.

Computer users were expecting something pretty similar in XP, but the literature accompanying Beta 1 explained that the design was not finalized. Microsoft was playing it close to the vest, which seemed a little strange until it became clear that Apple was also undergoing a major design change with the Mac OS X desktop .

Both companies played the waiting game, each waiting to see what the other was going to do and then play a trump card by taking the GUI slightly further. Microsoft appears to have done a better job, but users will have to wait until they can use both operating systems before any conclusions are drawn. For a look at screenshots of the new Windows GUI, check out the Windows XP guide on Microsoft’s site. For more screen shots and a scoop on Media Player 8, visit Paul Thurrott’s SuperSite for Windows. Very little is being given away about these new technologies at this point, but the GUI does look particularly easy to use, especially for the inexperienced user. Whether the skinning capabilities will allow power users and professionals to do their jobs more efficiently is yet to be seen.

Disadvantages of the new design
The inevitable downsides of this idea are known to anyone who has already used WindowBlinds or a similar program to skin Windows. In fact, potential negatives to skinning are familiar to anybody who has changed their Windows color scheme: Nonstandardized, third-party applications can often look terrible.

No third-party applications are shown in the screenshots of the new Microsoft OS. It is difficult to imagine how the floating toolbars of Adobe PhotoShop will comply with the rounded, semitransparent buttons of a customized Windows XP. While this conflict may not be a problem for some users, the new look may be troubling for new users migrating from earlier versions of Windows.

More GUI changes to come
When are we going to begin implementation of the new version of Windows? A preview is available on Microsoft’s site, with the release date set for June 2001. This timetable is much shorter than Windows 2000 enjoyed, and it looks as if the Release Candidates of XP are going to be the main point at which the big bugs are fixed, which could lead to reliability issues in the later releases.

A sneak peek into the future of GUI design is available on Microsoft’s research site. A Microsoft team is working on interface design, including the expanded use of 3-D capabilities and the development of PUIs, or Perceptual User Interfaces. The concept behind PUI involves making human-computer interaction more closely resemble how people interact with each other. The Task Gallery is a unique idea, allowing a user to “hang” an application in 3-D space. The Task Gallery is still a long way from implementation, but it may give you an idea of Microsoft’s plan to utilize 3-D accelerated graphics chips for something other than playing Quake.
Will Windows XP live up to its billing? Send us your thoughts on Microsoft’s move to XP.