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For Software Addicts: Yes!MaybeNah!
Mars Report:

On Theming Mac OS X: How Long Can I Hold On?

Published July 14th, 2012

CrystalClear Interface and Crystal Black are marvelous, foolhardy, and frivolous experiments in theming the Mac OS X user interface. As they were in the beginning, so they remain today: Elegantly imperfect software products, which will always be buggy. It's just the nature of the experiment. Why? Because they try to do something Apple works hard to prevent, and therefore are outlaw apps: Only able to pop up here and there with a sparkling, think-different approach that just isn't meant to be.

I am the foremost user of these two themes, and I continue to develop them because (1) it's still possible and (2) I really like them. As the author, I'm tolerant of their occasional misbehavior, but I understand that not all observers are so patient. Nobody likes a screaming 3-year-old while enjoying a quiet evening at one's favorite restaurant. I'm no different in that, but I do try to make sure my children learn how to behave as new situations arise that cause them to flare up.

Still, there are always new situations, and, well, children will be children. My children are still quite young, but the day may come when either they are banned from new restaurants for their behavior, or I become too exhausted from apologizing for them to take them out in public any more.

With each release of its operating system, Apple drives me one step closer to that edge. It's not intentional, I'm sure... In the interest of providing a safe OS environment, Apple continues to tighten the knot around inter-application interactions — especially those that allow third-party software, like CrystalClear Interface (CCI), to load itself into other applications, such as the Finder or TextEdit. And yet, without that kind of interaction, CCI and Crystal Black (CB) could not function.

For now, it appears that CCI will survive the transition to Mountain Lion (Mac OS X 10.8), but as with every release of Mac OS X since Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4), the amount of effort to do so is greater. And I fear that as the technologies introduced by Apple for increased security in Lion and Mountain Lion are more widely adopted by software developers, the number of applications that won't run CCI properly will increase.

In some future update, Apple could introduce a change that will turn off the lights for CCI and CB for good, as well as those for AppMenu Magic and my freeware Text Tools. Such a change would mean I could no longer develop the software, let alone support it.

On a personal level, this would mean giving up an obsession that's outlived enormous odds. When I first took up theming for Mac OS X back in 2005, it was strictly a design job, with lots of time spent in Photoshop working with teeny, tiny bits of buttons and other interface elements. And there was a stable theming environment provided by a third-party application called ShapeShifter, which became obsolete when Apple released Mac OS X 10.5 ("Leopard').

CrystalClear Interface became possible only after I learned how to make application windows with transparent-capable backgrounds. And I learned how to do that only by gradually teaching myself how to write programs for Mac OS X using Apple's Cocoa frameworks and its native language, Objective-C.

I didn't sit down tonight to write a history of CCI, so suffice it to say that as CCI evolved, the programming component grew in inverse proportion to the design/graphics component. In fact, the design work is now quite subservient to the code.

This means I can no longer amuse myself by designing new themes. Instead, I spend most of my time making sure the existing theme designs will work on Apple's new Mac OS X releases. I already gave up the Glossy design on Lion, but I'd really love to rescucitate it — And I'll have to if I actually upgrade to Mountain Lion. Why? Because I really like the Glossy theme, and I'd want to use it myself. And then there's the matte black theme I keep dreaming about...

On a side note, have you noticed that in Lion Apple has almost eliminated the Aqua interface? In fact, the button theme they're using for most items looks and works suspiciously like CCI's "Unified Gradient" theme, which I introduced in 2009 to uniformly apply to all interface elements a button style Apple had added to Leopard. In Lion today, the main elements that remain candy-colored are Apple's "stop light" buttons, the progress bars, and odd pieces like the titlebars of list-view tables. Otherwise, Aqua is gone, though not replaced with anything so memorable. And hard-core themers continue to weep and satisfy themselves with such trivia as themes for the Dock (easy) or Menubar (much harder). Some also try theming buttons and such, but with Lion Apple has made even that mundane endeavor mysteriously difficult. (Buttons are composited against window backgrounds in a mysterious way that requires providing whole separate sets of buttons for Snow Leopard and Lion.)

Which brings me to the crux of this overly-long, overly-dreary essay: CrystalClear Interface exists today only because once I had seen how beautiful it could be, I couldn't let that beauty go. I simply can't stand working with gray-gradient windows all day, no matter how elegant they may be. And there are times when I really want/need a dark interface like the Black Gloss theme from Crystal Black.

So either I sever the cord with Apple's future OS X updates, or I sever the cord with CCI. It will have to be one or the other, and I'm not yet sure which that will be.

In the current setting, supporting Lion (and soon, Mountain Lion) has been royally painful. So much so that for the last 6 months I've spent most of my time getting CCI to run on Lion, or merely keeping it running. Not very satisfying for me, since I don't use Lion myself (yet).

An earlier article discussed the grief involved in updating CCI for Lion, and I mention it here because the problems haven't gone away. They've merely formed a continuous obstacle that becomes more and more tedious to work around.

In other words: Most of the fun of developing CCI has been held at bay, and the drudge work of keeping up with Apple has made me wonder how long I can hold out.

My fondest hope is that next time, Apple will make us wait longer than one year before throwing a new OS our way.

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