Windows XP Customization Frenzy

I came across a meme about Windows XP theme today. And jeez it evoked so much nostalgia and literally brought me back to circa 2004, a time I was so hooked to PC that I spent virtually all my spare time on it. However, unlike most kids, I didn't play much game (although I was indeed addicted to Counter-Strike 1.6 and Red Alert 2 at some point). Instead, I was fascinated by the power of software and all my time was spent on trying different software. I especially liked simple yet handy tools created by indie developers/studios and had a preference for portable versions (Chinese netizens call them "green" software).

The most important piece of software is, of course, the operating system. After sticking to Windows 2000 for a while (for some reason I believed it to be more secure than the newer Windows XP), I finally upgraded to XP. Compared to the boring gray boxes from previous Windows versions, the XP GUI is much more modern and vibrant. I especially loved the ability to change skins of Windows Media Player (WMP). I mean, who doesn't love customization? Compared to WMP which had all kinds of fun and bizarre skins (remember the green head?), the customization of XP's default theme is very limited — the best you can do is switch to a different color. But one day, I came across the Media Center Edition (MCE) theme (the one in the middle panel in the meme) and was instantly hooked by it. At a glance it’s not much different from the default theme, but the 3D-ish, crystal-like look and the ever so slightly more vibrant color simply elevated the aesthetics to a whole new level.

I, NEED, IT, NOW. I screamed internally.

Unfortunately this theme was exclusive to MCE at the moment and I believed it wasn’t available to my PC. But the good news is that there are workarounds to install it directly. The trick is to patch uxtheme.dll, the library file that manages themes, to allow the installation of themes that aren’t meant to be installed, including 3rd-party ones. Patching uxtheme.dll is like opening the Pandora’s box — suddenly you are no longer limited to the 3 colors of the default theme and there are just endless themes waiting for you to try. I quickly discovered DeviantArt where so many talented designers upload great themes for free. In fact they are still doing it today (check out the custom Windows 10 themes like this one), and there are new ways to install custom themes without modifying system files.

Two things were extremely popular among the community at that time. The first one is emulating Longhorn (i.e. the codename for Windows Vista before release). Like many others, I installed everything possible, including themes, wallpapers, logon screens, fonts, icon packs and probably random mods, just to have the sexy, sleek glass look (called Aero). The second one is, of course, emulating OS X for the signature Aqua look (again people are still doing it today). Again, I was one of those people and to this day I still consider the gunmetal theme on Panther/Tiger my all-time favorite. That was the first time I experienced the cult-like affection for Apple products. You really had to go extra miles to get it look right, including installing dedicated dock software and even changing the way fonts are rendered.

The act of emulating something entirely different has a duality nature: on one hand, there’s the feeling of satisfaction and reward every time you make it one step closer; on the other hand comes the frustration as you know it’ll never be the same thing however close you get. The latter is probably the reason why the end game for many OS X emulation enthusiasts is getting a real Mac.

For me, this frenzy eventually died down but like I said the joy and satisfaction it brought was real. I also learned the spirit of sharing an being open — it was hard not to when you get to enjoy works by great designers for free. It also happened at a great time: Web forums were at the prime; blogging was becoming more and more popular; Web 2.0 was just getting started. This will remain as one of the most treasured memories of mine.