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Microsoft had a secret Windows XP theme that made it look like a Mac (theverge.com)
148 points by ideals 12 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 115 comments

Quote: "Microsoft was developing Windows XP during an era when there was fierce competition with Apple over desktop operating systems"

I'm sorry, what? Talk about joke of the week. Apple never had desktop world bigger than 10% as market share. Not even today when it's at the highest peak ever, and in 2001 they were more like 1%. Sorry to burst your bubble Tom Warren, you do realize US is like 35 people out of 800. Asia market was and still is dominated by Microsoft when it comes to desktop.

OK, here are the receipts: internal MS emails from just a couple of years after this (in the run-up to Vista) literally saying that they expect to be compared to Tiger and found wanting:


Marketshare isn’t everything. You can have outsized mindshare with a tiny market share. You can compete for more than marketshare, too

iOS and Android demonstrate pretty succinctly that market share isn’t everything with regards to competition and market success.

Yeah, but Windows never had the money problem Android has. Windows had at least the same amount of money spinning on top of it, due to the sheer amount of enterprise apps, especially financial ones, running on top of it.

Android is basically a loss leader for Google ads :-)

Perhaps he means "in the Bay Area"?

That's about right. Here in the UK you were lucky to see a mac ever back then. A colleague bought the lamp style iMac unit in 2002 and we were quite frankly shocked at it. It was actually a pretty horrid machine compared to our windows 2000 PCs at the time.

There’s an important distinction between what people bought for themselves and what they were given at work. Apple had a big lead on a quality GUI, and things like color matching, which made them preferred in certain fields and generally had more of a premium cachet (the PC market was still shaking the low-end image of things sold without sound cards, slacking on USB adoption, shoddy drivers, etc.).

Microsoft was shooting for 100% market share and was trying to close every niche keeping Apple alive even if the inertia of all of those business sales meant their total market share was never in question.

> Apple never had desktop world bigger than 10% as market share.

And that would make Apple the single largest PC manufacturer.

Depends upon how you define Personal Computer and what time-frame you look at.

So if you define a personal computer as a computer people use for personal tasks as a tool, then a mobile phone fits that. In that definition and if you look at all the years history wise, It does look like Nokia have sold the most computers for personal use. At least going by the numbers sold per manufacturer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_mobile_ph... and mobiles selling way more than other forms of computers.

Smart phones are not personal computers and the kind of dumb phones around in that year weren’t even smart enough to be computing devices. My phone back then was “amazing” because it had an inbuilt FM tuner AND supported custom ring tones (think PC speaker quality rather than MP3s). I think I could store a maximum of 50 text messages too and that felt like a lot.

It’s sometimes hard to believe how young smart phones (and in fact portable mobile phones in general) are by just how much we now depend on them and take them for granted.

the big three have been Lenovo, HP and Dell for a long time, order of those has switched sometimes. so depending how you slice the share, you could find a niche where somehow it would appear as whatever you want it to be, usual thing when reporting market shares: "we are top in this is super-niche slice of the overall market"

They'd have to ship just over twice that to touch Lenovo now.

It is untrue. Microsoft kept Internet Explorer and Office for macOS. MacOS was Microsoft's joker card for arguing they were not a monopolist, and that card was valid when they were under antitrust investigations by US, EU, and others ie. when Windows XP was current.

Market share is often measured in both units and sales (or 'dollars'). Both of these are important to a company's future but when markets are segmented then the smaller number of units can be worth pursuing.

Think of it as "rivalry", perhaps. Think of a mass-market car company that outsells a luxury brands 5x or 10x but whose designers still swipe ideas from them.

Rivalry? In 2001? When only 2 years earlier Billy boy had to buy Apple's shares to keep them afloat? I know Billy boy did that to get off the hook with US govt., not like he was any saint - but from that to "rivalry" is a tall order.

You seem to have a beef with Apple but regardless of the difficulties of the company in the 90s, it was still a hugely influential company that popularized GUI interfaces and for sure was well known by engineers and designers of other operating systems.

You missed my point. I have a beef with all of them. In my eyes they are all shitty companies, past and present included.

“Billy boy” adds nothing and IMO detracts from what is otherwise a good point.

Yes, please use William man

Well, that’s also not true.

Microsoft invested a grand total of $250 million in Apple. Apple turned around during that same quarter and spent $100 million on Power Computings Mac license. Apple didn’t become profitable until years later. The $150 wouldn’t have saved Apple.

> Apple never had desktop world bigger than 10% as market share.

Right but you can differentiate markets.

Apple may be 10% worldwide, including Asian markets like India.

But what is the market for affluent and influential tech workers in the West? Probably like 95% MacBook Pro.

Which market do you think they care more about?

>But what is the market for affluent and influential tech workers in the West? Probably like 95% MacBook Pro.

I'm also dev in the West and no, it's not even close to being 95% MacBook Pro. Maybe in The Bay Area it's 95% but where I live(Europe) It's mostly Windows 10 + WSL or Ubuntu.

And I wouldn't call tech workers here as influential, not at all. Again, Maybe in the Bay Area they are but here nobody cares about what your job is or what expensive laptop you have.

Logging in from DC here: also not 95% macbooks. This is a common trope that really bothers me. You'll see it in tech meetups where someone will have their turn to talk/present in the group and will apologize for running Windows.

I live in Europe myself and it's MacBook Pros where I live. And I go to conferences all around the world and all I see is MacBook Pros everywhere.

> And I wouldn't call tech workers here as influential, not at all.

Tech works who influence other tech workers. This is important because if everyone you see speaking at conferences is using a MacBook, and all the software available is for MacBooks, then other people are pushed to use MacBooks.

By Europe I meant continental Europe, no the UK. The UK is heavily US influenced so there it's more popular.

And by devs I mean all SW devs, not just Web Devs who seem to heavily favor Macs.

Conferences are not relevant as they mostly draw huge enthusiasts/geeks of various niches who are very self conscious about their perceived status there(since you go there to network) and don't want to be judged by their high-value peers for using the wrong machine(yes, some developers can be very superficial and judgmental; we're not saints). It's like saying Everyone in my area owns fancy cars because every time I go to the regional car show I only see exotics.

Also, the Macs or no Macs is a very regional/company thing varying greatly between country/city/company.

For example, in Germany I never saw Macs at big industry giants, just Windows/Linux machines as the bean counters couldn't justify to management the extra cost when the same work could be done on a Lenovo with Ubuntu.

Anyway, Europe as a whole is by no means like the Bay Area in terms of Mac adoption.

I'm from continental europe but live in the UK now. I've never counted but Macs have always been very present (rough guess would be 50/50 split back home), but here in the UK, or London specifically, I can probably count devs with PCs that I know with both hands. It definitely is very US influenced here, but we still have to keep in mind that we live in a tech bubble so representation is a bit skewed. I also see lots of Linux running on Lenovos and Dells, especially devs and IT folks, but to be honest, when you look at actual global stats, Linux is 1-2% of the overall European market share[1], and just above 2% when you only count for desktop[2], with macOS around 10% and 20% respectively.

Macs right now are seen everywhere. Literally everywhere in any large city, you'll see Macs in cafes and offices. This means that the 20% desktop market share that they enjoy at the moment is probably the highest it has ever been. I remember back in the 2000s, having a Mac was quite rare in Europe. It was also for the most part a nuisance (same as running Linux) when you had to download windows-specific software or maybe use IE specific websites for work or government related things. Anyone who says that it was an even fight back in the 2000s or earlier either doesn't know what they're talking about or has come from a alternate reality.

1. https://gs.statcounter.com/os-market-share/all/europe 2. https://gs.statcounter.com/os-market-share/desktop/europe

> Conferences are not relevant as they mostly draw huge enthusiasts/geeks of various niches who are very self conscious

This doesn’t sound like a fair rebuttal to me.

> as the bean counters couldn't justify to management the extra cost

This is the simple explanation for why people don’t use Macs, and reflects a key difference between the tech industry in the US (Bay Area in particular) and Europe.

Enthusiasts that consider Linux plebian over Macs? You mean fanboys.

I consider myself much more elite with my 500$ refurb thinkpad running Linux with i3 than anyone I would ever see owning a Mac. And it's far easier to show off with a machine only very few even know how to use.

I think I have only met one person using Windows for development (recently-ish). All people I know in UK, Spain, France, Germany, and Italy are either Mac or Linux.

Edit: added UK

I live in Spain and the rest of Europe is not like the UK at all.

My data does not support that conclusion. To the contrary, the vast majority of business decision makers are still on a Windows based machine in the US.

I can validate this directly as we operate the largest library of long-form professional/technical content library on the web. Over 700k professionals per month are registering and downloading content specific to their needs.

Below is the current breakout of their device factor for 2020:

Windows = 97.26% Mac = 8.21% Linux 2.92% Chrome OS = 0.27%

Clearly just one perspective into the market but we've never seen Mac approach any level of critical mass within the US professional marketplace.

and that means desktop devices, not servers, embedded or smartphones: not overall shares. common error is picking one slice of the share and claiming it as something else.

Numbers do not add up. Maybe Windows is more like 90%?

>Windows = 97.26% Mac = 8.21% Linux 2.92% Chrome OS = 0.27%

Roger, data seems to already show more than 100 percent of registrees are using personal-style computers?

> But what is the market for affluent and influential tech workers in the West? Probably like 95% MacBook Pro.

Not in the late 1990s, when Windows XP was being developed.

>Apple may be 10% worldwide, including Asian markets like India.

Well in 2000 there wasn't much computer in China or India.

Of course today that is a lot different. But if Apple's numbers were correct [] then MacBook Pro market share isn't growing, as a matter of fact MBP usage may be shrinking in the West.

[] For a number of years they claim nearly 50% of Mac buyers are new to the platform. That is nearly 10M per year.

Nearly all of the new Mac users are from China.

And yet their reported Active Mac User dont grow any where near as much.

2019 was also the first year in recent history Apple stopped reporting on Mac user satisfaction.

It depends what you mean by "influential"

XP was the peak of desktop customizations. There were "theme packs", one of the most popular being a Vista Theme Pack.

The teen in me, with a Nokia 6600 besides the computer, was in awe when a single installation of Vista Theme Pack and rebooting a couple times meant that everything on my 40GB HDD Pentium computer was changed from the login screen to icons, wallpaper, fonts, shell, file copy boxes, disk space meter, desktop CPU-o-meter dials to a whole modern look.

I'd argue that Linux desktop was always the peak of customization via themes, and today remains the last platform to even allow such customization. Most Linux desktop themes don't look all that great (simply because of the '90% of everything is crap' rule), but there are a few really great ones that are aesthetically much more pleasing than both Win10 and macOS (of course this is very personal and subjective, which makes it all the more important to allow theming).

Old Mac OS - System 7.5 days and thereabouts had a really great theming situation, with Kaleidoscope schemes making it possible to change everything. I remember I made my own.

Something like this shows the diversity in themes:


Wayback machine link


What are your favourites?

I currently use Adapta Nokto on Ubuntu.

It's the peak of customization yet the community is full of people saying "I didn't like GNOME's palette so I use Plasma now." I never know how to respond to those people. If they're happy, whatever, but it feels like most people are unaware themes exist.

To be fair, themes are only grudgingly supported by gnome. KDE has more available configurability for color schemes, but the number of Qt themes that handle everything correctly and look good is small.

I think resolution-independence has made creating themes much more difficult, and not a lot of people are up to the task.

Windows can still be customized a lot.

Are you aware of the very large number of desktop environments and window managers available on *nix systems?

“Skins” were popular in the windows ecosystem around XP, but it was far from the peak of customization.

It was definitely the peak. I was heavily involved in several communities, and also ran plenty of other desktops environments, but XP had the largest following by far. The sheer number of websites devoted to skinning XP was astounding. Popular websites had thousands and thousands of themes. Winamp 3 was thriving too.

It was most definitely peak customization.


Fluxbox itself. Fvwm. Enlightenment. Sawfish.

With fluxbox you had over 1000 themes. And winamp skins worked on xmms.

Also, fvwm was so distinct that you could have tablet like setups before even tablets existed, even with those infamous thumbnail minimizations, but in 2004.

Maybe peak community, I don't know about that.

But r/unixporn disagrees about peak amount of customization.

the odds were good, but the goods were odd :)

Even with that scale, the capabilities and ahievements are nowehere near what can be done with a proper *nix DE.

I'm not sure if you're familiar with the extent to which people altered things, such as https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/LiteStep

Speaking off shell replacements: Are there any worthwhile ones today? I know Cairo, but it's "meh". The windows default shell is just buggy and glitchy as hell (even though I generally mostly like it - a version with fewer glitches would be enough for me, really).

AFAIK: No. These days the default Windows WM seem to dominate. I don’t know of any viable alternatives to it.

I did run LiteStep actually, it's still not nearly as much customization as what is possible nowadays with modern DEs.

LiteStep is amazingly customizable and versatile, but it doesn't come close to being able to, for example, define pixel shaders in a theme, or being able to easily change any UI element anywhere using simple HTML/CSS, or completely switching paradigms by just changing around a few dotfiles.

Not even DE. Fluxbox had literally thousands of styles. And fvwm powned ANY DE and Windows OS.

Enlightenment got me into linux, and when I discovered you couldn't run it on Windows, I discovered Litestep. And then spent so, so many hours of my life tweaking themes. Ahh, memories.

Most Linux desktop environments disagree. :)

> XP was the peak of desktop customizations.

XP theme customizations wasn't even close to what you could do on Unix at the time.

Compared to fvwm or KDE3 xp was a damn joke.

> XP was the peak of desktop customizations.

Only if you consider computing is limited to Windows/Mac.

Mac OS wasn't this ugly.

Seriously: You can't just incorporate some design element and go "see, it looks like X". It won't. What most people making software seem to miss is that software look & feel isn't the design of widgets, but also click behavior, layouts, click paths, description texts, animations, delay after a click ...

/tangentially related rant

The article suggests that it was being used to test theming. In other words, it was not intended to ship. It is probable that it would be shot down if anyone proposed shipping it. (Why elicit a lawsuit from a competitor over something trivial?)

Given that, why would they go to the effort or recreating the whole visual appearance. The actual "feel" part was unlikely to be within the scope of the project.

I think the complaint was more about the article being clickbait than about some jankily borrowed assets used to test theming.

There were lots of copycat themes for Linux window managers and toolkits around then which looked much worse than this attempt.

I really miss the windows XP theme. It was super clean and consistent compared to the shit show we have now.

Back then people called it Fisher Price.

Probably my fav was during the betas before they added the intense blue/green "Luna" theme.

I loved the XP theme! It was undoubtedly very polarizing though, even to this day people argue over whether it was a beautiful step forward (as I believe) or a horrible Fischer-Price kids UI.

Yes, obviously the complete finished product of Mac OS looked better than this half-finished "programmer art" demonstration that never even shipped. What were you expecting?

As per the article, the theme was incomplete. Of course it was ugly.

Correct. This memo also applies to some Linux interfaces (usually one that begins with G and ends with ome)

I strongly disagree with your example: Gnome has one of the nicest and consistent designs besides MacOS

It's fine to disagree but my point is with this:

> isn't the design of widgets, but also click behavior, layouts, click paths, description texts, animations, delay after a click ...

Which I find troublesome with Gnome

Windows XP original theme was the best. Not at a nostalgic level only (which of course affects me and my memory), but I felt it was so easy to use and so easy to find everything. Today, Windows 10 control panel is a mess.

By far the best feature of XP theming was you could turn it off and it looked just Windows 2000 :)

Yeah, this was always my first step when I found myself forced to use Windows.

The Control Panel in Windows 10 is now legacy, with most things now under Settings. Eventually it'll go away I guess, but some apps still install their own little control panel applets.

Either way, the best way to access everything you can do in Windows 10 is do it via the 'god mode' folder:

  1. Create a new folder
  2. Rename it to: GodMode.{ed7ba470-8e54-465e-825c-99712043e01c}
  3. Open it
The 'GodMode' part of the name, can be anything you like tbh.

>with most things now under Settings

Yeah that's the problem, it's not. Microsoft should really be more focused on usability, the whole "i wanna be touch-panel" is just stupid, MS you are a PC! Even Apple said that.

You do get into a bit of a problem when you put Windows on a tablet such as the Surface line. I think that’s what Microsoft was trying to solve with Windows 8, but they failed very badly. They have fixed some things such as removing the Start Screen and putting back a Start Menu, but the fundamental problem of putting a desktop OS on a tablet (touch targets must be bigger than click targets) still exists. I don’t see them fixing it any time soon, but I’d love to be wrong.

The problem with the settings app is most things are not included in it.

> Today, Windows 10 control panel is a mess.

Which one?

I’m not sure I agree about easy to use. But it was very peformant, even on modest hardware.

My favorite though was Windows 2000. Very stable.

> Today, Windows 10 control panel is a mess.

Oh gosh, yes. It gets a little bit better if you organize it alphabetically, but then it is alphabetical left to right, top to bottom. It's as if somebody intentionally designed it to be as difficult to scan through as possible.

Upvoted this, because I always found rtl-then-down ordering confusing af. On top of that, every generation of windows renamed items, like "Software ...", "Programs ...", "Add/remove programs ...", etc.

It would makes localizing nightmare.

Window XP was the reason I had to reset my PC almost every week for a summer because I would mess up the registry files trying to modify icons or startup screen or while trying to make it look like a mac because I couldn't afford a mac. XP was the era of theming!

Around that time I was running Stardock WindowBlinds, which had quite a few OSX widgets and whatnot available.

1996 - Neil Banfield was working on windows blinds whilst on the same set of courses at the university we both went to. Sold to stardock soon after. Just looked it up and things are still going strong!

A lot to be said for the OG windows hook APIs and whatever modern magic they are grabbing into these days.

Wow, Stardock. That brings back memories. Theming my computer was how I learned most of what I knew about graphic design and inadvertently lead to me becoming a developer.

I loved those themes so much. What a fun way to kill time as a teenager.

Windows Codename Whistler (beta codename for XP) actually contained a Watercolor theme that looked like a modernized version of the classic theme[0] that this seems to be based off of. That theme actually looked quite nice.

[0]: https://www.deviantart.com/rainingskies/art/Windows-Whistler...

I forgot about this! I ran this theme for many years, it was a great balance of understated (compared to the blue and green default) and visually appealing (classic theme is fine, but dull)

I recall MSN software being similarly styled

Makes me want to run xp again

You’ll want to airgap it if you do... :)

Does anyone remember Stardock's WindowBlinds from around the same time? I'm pretty sure it included a Mac theme in the installer? Or at the very least Stardock provided a place you could go to after installation to download more themes of which a Mac theme was one.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is, I'm not entirely convinced this is the deal it's made out to be as there were other companies out there with the same or similar offerings.

I don’t really understand why they did this though…? For inspiration…?

XP was a rewrite of the shell window decorations + controls system, to support drawing these as collections of bitmaps with fonts on top. Likely they were inspired to do this by the fact that macOS was doing things with buttons, modal backgrounds (pinstripe!), etc. that Windows couldn’t do at the time with its hardcoded GDI-draw-call based theming.

Microsoft knew that they wanted the flexibility to be able to do what macOS was doing with theming. But they didn’t have a clear vision of what they were going to use it for. They likely built the theming engine first, and then handed it to their designers to actually come up with a visual identity.

But the new theme engine needed to be tested while it was being built. And what better test, than to see if it can replicate all the things macOS can do that Windows, until then, could not? Probably they considered the theming engine “done” when it reached parity with macOS’s capabilities.

Microsoft has never understood that appearance (UI) is the last step. They've never been able to understand and therefore seriously address the stuff behind the veneer.


The 2008 presentation by the guy in charge of the Office Ribbon best demonstrates their organizational blindness. TLDR: They only set out to better organize the complexity, and make it more pretty. They never considered making the underlying products more simple.

One of my classmates worked on Word for ages. One of his subprojects was WordArt. Knowing of my interest in graphics, UI, CADD, he consulted with me. We talked about direct manipulation, affordances, UI flow, etc. Then he went dark. Later, he gave me a preview demo. He was so proud of WordArt. But it was terrible. I was actually angry. To my younger self's credit, I somehow kept my mouth shut and made complimentary grunts. My friend later went on to create EndNote, which wasn't terrible.

One of my early bosses later went on oversee the login and authentication portions of Windows. Whatever that licensing registration step is called. For years. Having been trained as a real world architect (eg buildings, not software), he understood and accepted that he was just putting lipstick on a pig. But the pay was a lot better and he had family, mortgage for a nice house, shorter commute with a newer car. Real world architects don't expect to actually do the work they love and trained for.

> Having been trained as a real world architect (eg buildings, not software), he understood and accepted that he was jut putting lipstick on a pig. But the pay was a lot better and he had family, mortgage for a nice house, shorter commute with a newer car. Real world architects don't expect to actually do the work they love and trained for.

(Building) Architecture as a career sucks. There's too many people going into it, and not enough jobs. Getting licensed is currently very onerous. Wages are low unless you're a partner or owner of a firm. When you're a partner or owner, you don't do very much in the way of drawing buildings (which is what people think architecture is like). Architecture is actually mostly managing lots of groups, the client (sometimes also their clients), engineering contractors, building contractors, permitting offices and inspectors, etc.

> They never considered making the underlying products more simple.

I mean, how could they, really? Their primary-revenue-source customers are enterprises with established workflows, that want those established workflows to continue to work. These enterprises would be very unhappy if Microsoft changed the "architecture" of how any of their products do anything, or even how automation products (e.g. VBA macros) would have to interact with their products to accomplish things. The only reason these companies stick with Microsoft, rather than switching to a competitor like Google, is that Microsoft ensures their 20-year-old VBA-laden Excel workbooks continue to work on new versions of Excel.

Any change Microsoft makes to their UI, has to require at-most-trivial changes to these enterprise workflows. And so Microsoft can only really make at-most-trivial changes. They can't cut any Gordian knots by e.g. merging two features into one that solves both problems, because then the workflows couldn't work in terms of the original two features any more.

I feel like the only way Microsoft could really get out of this hole, is by just creating an entirely-new suite of products, that "replace" their existing products for new users, but aren't meant to replace their existing products for existing users, and so where the existing products wouldn't get deprecated/put on life support, until they're something only stodgy old dinosaur companies are using any more.

If they're willing to do it (a dozen times so far) for their collaboration/groupware suite; then why not do it for Office?

My theory is someone needed to write tests for the theming system, and they had some fun.

Probably a dev having fun showing off what theming can do. I could see myself doing that if I needed an internal example of how much the themes could change.

It would be have been great if the different OS's had similar surface look & feel, to facilitate people being able to use both. I fear intellectual property concerns at the time may have discouraged MS from making this public.

Being close but not identical causes confusion and frustration. A radically different UI sets expectations that things don't work the same. A skin can't change the fact that Mac is document-centric and Windows is program-centric.

It's similar to Linux window managers - things that try to copy Windows exactly inevitably cause frustration when certain behaviors (hovering over taskbar icons, dragging to edges) or keyboard shortcuts don't work like how you expect, while something significantly different like Gnome or i3 makes it obvious that you have to learn something differnet.

> A skin can't change the fact that Mac is document-centric and Windows is program-centric.

I would have said that windows is window centric and macOS is application-centric.

On windows you alt-tab between windows and on MacOS you alt-tab between applications and alt-~ between windows inside the currently selected application.

Is that where GNOME got their idiotic alt+tab behaviour from? I absolutely hate having to use two shortcuts in sequence to switch to a specific window. Thankfully it's easy to correct the shortcuts but I still don't get what person would want this behaviour.

They could have just allowed users to create their own themes (without having to patch system files)

I seem to remember my brother installing a Mac theme on our Windows XP system back in the day.

This was followed shortly by installing MacOS on our PC.

I would love if we would stop analyzing every single detail in public.

I wish HN would have a limited amount of articles, news paper have that already and if the internet is 'out' and i would need to be forced to do something else for the day.

Its probably nice to think and discuss something that specific in desktop/computer historian fansub or so but that should be searched and discovered.

I got so fed up with all the nvidia 30x0 rumors. It was a great launch but every peace of rumor was not adding anything to it.

Sounds like you want to make a new website. Or use something like lobsters, which has stricter quality control.

If HN users upvote something enough, it's on the front page: HS shows you your HN-reading peers apparently like to talk about. Nothing more.

this is likely some Microsoft's employee's uncredited work, like most windows components

It's a theme from the Windows XP source code leak. Obviously it's going to be uncredited; it was never intended to be seen outside Microsoft. This was probably a developer messing with the theme engine to see what it could do and to test its limits.

If I was a marketing person at Apple right now, I would MILK THIS NOW!

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