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Hot on the Web

Dressing up your browser

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 23, 2007
(Issue 2512, The Perfect Printer)

There was a time, not so very long ago, that "customization" was all the rage. From "customizing" your desktop to putting a "skin" on your favorite app, gazillions of man hours were wasted ... er, spent ... in making your computer environment as personalized as your bedroom.

Of course, at the time "customization" was so hot, it was because it was new. Only with the advent of Windows 95 could the PC clone world enjoy the benefits of a fully customizable desktop environment. Only with the Pentium computers introduced a decade ago were computers fast enough and possessed of enough memory to be able to display a photograph as a desktop's background image – or to be able to store different "skins" for programs like Winamp (a skin being a different set of color scheme and possibly even buttons and menus to give the program a completely different look).

Today, we take it for granted – even though the possibilities for customizing our computing experience – at least the cosmetic end of it – has never been greater.

Netscape 8

Previous versions of Netscape once featured hundreds of available skins, but previous skins won't work with Netscape v. 8.x. But they're not called skins anymore, anyway – they're called "Themes" and you select among them under the Tools entry on the pull-down menu. You can browse all available themes from this menu, and download them as well. But if you change themes, you have to close out and re-start Netscape for the changes to take effect.

Don't get too excited, anyway: For Netscape 8.x, there are only five themes currently available, although Netscape's "Themepark" is an ambitious name and the Web page promises a whole passel of new themes shortly. (On the other hand, the Netscape 8.1 SDK is also promised to be "coming soon" – without it, the user community can't create it's own themes to share.

Firefox 2

Firefox also now calls skins themes, and while Firefox's predecessor, the Mozilla browser, could share themes with Netscape, that no longer appears to be the case.

As with Netscape 8, you access themes from the Tools pull-down menu item – but here, you have to go to "Add-Ons" first, then to the Themes tab. And you have to re-start Firefox for the new theme to take effect.

On the other hand, there are dozens – perhaps hundreds – of clean, well-designed themes for Firefox. You can re-create a Mac look on your PC, a Windows look on your Mac, or come up with something completely different.

And as with Netscape, you can download the toolkit to make your own themes.

Internet Explorer 7

Right now, there is no way to install skins on IE7 – not unless you get one of the third-party IE replacement browsers. ComputerWorld's Web site says there are rumors from inside Microsoft that the first major IE7 upgrade will include a capability to have skins to change its appearance. But as of now, you're out of luck.

Opera 9

With Opera 9, the customization available to the user extends far beyond the cosmetics. With Opera's "widgets," users can write little utility plug-ins for Opera to extend its functionality.

In early March, Opera announced that it had posted its 1,000th widget at

Actually, they aren't just plug-ins – at least not in the usual sense of extending the browser's core functionality. Rather, they're little stand-alone programs that ride atop Opera. (You can't run the widgets without Opera running.) From a "Missile Command" clone to a analog clock to a PDF creator, there are widgets that do all kinds of nifty things. And all are free, and on the small side for downloading. You don't even have to install them or re-start Opera – just download and go. Don't like it? Simply delete it from the Widgets manager in Opera's pull-down menu.

Oh, and Opera still supports something as mundane as skins, too. Lots of them. Hundreds. Maybe thousands.

Like Firefox and Netscape, Opera runs on multiple platforms – Windows, Mac and Linux. It seems that most if not all of the themes will work with all variants of Opera.

You get to the skins by going Tools>Appearance, and then clicking on the Skin tab (which is actually the default).

The coolest thing about Opera skins is that, just as with the widgets, once you've downloaded a skin, you can change to it on the fly. No re-starting of Opera to get a skin to take effect – just choose it and go.