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Appearance Themes
A sledgehammer for your 1984 interface

Published on July 12, 2001
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Apple's 1984 Super Bowl advertisement has been routinely hailed as the greatest television commercial of all time. It was successful primarily because it dramatically portrayed how the Macintosh broke away from conformity and liberated users from the stifling environment imposed by "big brother" IBM. Ever since Apple's sledgehammer plowed into that big blue telescreen, Mac-users have identified themselves as nonconformists who insist on doing things their own way.

Apple has a different stance, however, when it comes to Appearance Themes—small files a user can install to dramatically change the look and feel of the Macintosh operating system. Apple has made it clear that it does not want its users to have the power to alter its graphical interface with custom appearance themes, an ironic stance for a company that is supposed to "think different."

Behind the themes

Apple planned to introduce custom appearance themes called Hi-Tech and Gizmo with its now-defunct Copland operating system. These themes resurfaced in pre-release versions of Mac OS 8.5 along with an additional theme called Drawing Board. Unfortunately, Apple pulled these custom themes from the final version of its new OS, and the only theme to be included was the standard Apple platinum.

Ironically, the architecture for supporting alternative appearance themes was still built into Mac OS 8.5, leading users to speculate whether Apple would introduce additional themes in a later version. Sadly, Apple did not.

Users say yes

Mac-users would not be deterred so easily, however. A group of eager programmers formed the Mac Themes Project and started work on a "theme machine" that could be used to create custom appearance themes for Mac OS 8.5 and up. The project's first theme, Paper, was rather plain, but it laid a foundation for other aspiring theme-writers to build upon.

And build they did—users started cranking out dozens of custom themes, from the sleek and shiny to the downright ostentatious. To keep track of these, opened a theme archive to showcase a selection of lively themes users could preview, download, and install for free.

Before long, a few themes for Mac OS X started to surface, an especially interesting development since many users have complained about the new Aqua interface. One issue in particular is the profusion of horizontal lines that make on-screen text difficult to read, a problem that can be easily resolved by installing a theme without lines.

Apple says no

While Mac-users were thrilled with this freedom of choice, Apple was not. On April 17, Apple sent its legal attack dogs after the crew at the Mac Themes Project and ordered them to discontinue development of the Theme Machine. Apple alleged that the Theme Machine allowed others "to create themes that are identical or confusingly similar to Apple's copyrighted and trademarked themes," and threatened fines up to $150,000 for each "violation."

This argument made absolutely no sense, but it seemed to work nonetheless—the developer download page has been pulled from the Mac Themes Project web site.

One must wonder why Apple would go through such trouble to kill these seemingly harmless efforts. After all, how can custom-made appearance themes harm Apple? Perhaps Apple believes that forcing all Macintosh computers to bear a single standard interface—like the splashy "lickable" eye-candy called Aqua—will make Mac OS-based computers easier to recognize and strengthen the brand's identity in the long run.

Then again, perhaps Apple simply feels that its customers should not have the power to customize their user interface with an appearance that is not as "insanely great" as Aqua.

Conformity is not the key

Many of Apple's Buried Treasures remain six feet under only because the Cupertino giant sees no value in them. Appearance Themes, on the other hand, have been continually digging their way out of the ground whether Apple likes it or not.

Aspiring users are going to continue customizing the Macintosh interface in a variety of unorthodox ways, and Apple ought to know that forcing its own users to conform to a single look and feel could tragically backfire.

In the end, Apple's own aqua-flavored telescreen may end up blown to pieces by the nonconformist's sledgehammer.

Author's background: Matt Johnson is a graphic design student at Wayne State College in Nebraska and will graduate this December. He has been a Mac user for 17 years and enjoys creative writing, drawing cartoons, and adding content to his web site,