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Remember my angst about whether I should migrate my computing life to Mountain Lion? Well, that story's now over, and Mountain Lion has won.
In my previous article I spoke of a desire to get back to theming, and specifically mentioned a desire to do that "black matte" theme I've been thinking about. I guess the article helped spur me on, because after several weeks of work I'm now ready to release Smooth Black, a new button theme for CrystalClear Interface (CCI).
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.
This little application provides two alterna-tive styles for the “Authenticate” panel that appears when-ever you’re required to enter a password on your Mac. It works by substituting differ-ent “NIB” files — the files that define the window’s interface — for the default system versions. (Jargon Alert: NIB stands for “NeXT InterfaceBuilder,” which was the original IB app developed on the NeXT operating system — the predecessor of Mac OS X.)
Some variation of these text tools have been included in CrystalClear Interface, as well as Crystal Black, since those applications were first released. However, the tools have nothing to do with the theming of buttons and windows, or with the general appearance of Mac OS X. I added them because they address a real need of mine, which no other software could do.
As a writer, I need ready access to a range of text functions, and I need them in whatever application in which I happen to be writing. In most of the rich text editors I use, those functions are available somewhere in the app’s menus, but typically they're in different places within each app. Some apps don’t include one or two key functions at all.
Mac OS X has a rich text framework that provides just the set of editing tools I require, and it would be extremely handy to be able to access those tools consistently across apps. This is precisely what the MarsThemes Text Tools do: Grant easy access to the key Cocoa text tools that writers and editors need but can’t find.
Work on programming and graphics is now far enough along that it's safe to say that CrystalClear Interface 2.6 will be ready for release soon. How soon? Don't ask, because my answer is always wrong.
CCI 2.6 will be a major upgrade, with some features customers have wanted for quite awhile now. The upgrade will be free for current CrystalClear Interface license-holders, but after release the software's price will increase to $18. The price increase reflects the major amount of work required to push CCI's functionality to the new level, and a lot of that work has to do with making it work — and look right — on Lion (Mac OS X 10.7).
Briefly, the main new features in CCI 2.6 will be:
- Incorporates the Crystal Black button theme for users on both Snow Leopard and Lion.
- Adds eight menubar themes users can mix and match with their chosen button theme.
- Seamlessly swaps custom application graphics for a given theme with the chosen new one.
- Fleshes out the custom system graphics for Lion, so that both the Gradient and the new Black Gloss button themes are almost in parity with Snow Leopard.
- Adds two new window frame styles — "Black Gloss" and "Black Gradient."
- Incorporates two new preset themes — "Black Gloss" and "Smooth Black" — to take advantage the new window styles.
- Adds numerous new Crystal Docs icons, and improves the icons tab to show previews of the various icons.
- Automates the installation of third-party Crystal Docs icons, so the user isn't interrupted and prompted to install for each app as they open it.
- Provides a new set of Crystal Desktop pictures, mainly for users who want a dark desktop. This set of "Deco Bubbles" desktops has six dark variations and four light ones.
- Adds code to enable readable statusbar text for the clock and username "menu extras." (Note: This feature currently doesn't work consistently on Lion.)
In the past few years, Adobe Flash has become more than an annoyance that some of us have kept in check by using "block Flash" plugins for our web browsers. More and more, entire web sites are being built with Flash, and they have no HTML alternative at all! This goes way beyond annoying, into the realm of crippling.
I had noticed the trend building for quite awhile, but it only really hit home when I realized that Google, of all companies, had redesigned its formerly accessible Analytics site to rely heavily on Flash for displaying content. This wouldn't be absolutely horrible except for the fact that Google provides no HTML alternative. I tried to needle the company through its Analytics forums, but only received assurance that yes, indeed, one must have the Flash plugin running to view the site.
Keep in mind that content like that on Google Analytics is not mere marketing information, like the sales pitch on the Analytics home page.
Those of us who are disturbed by the trend need to be a bit more vocal about our opinion. Hence, I'm starting a "Just Say No To Flash!" campaign, with its own web page, graphics for a banner, and the CSS and HTML code to deploy it on your own web pages.
I've mentioned this to some of my family and friends, and they often come back with: "So, Why should I say no to Flash?" I admit that as a power browser and a programmer geek type who, shall we say, makes more efficient use of the web, I'm more keenly aware of the ways that Flash is chipping away at the foundation of web content.
In the beginning, it seemed harmless: Flash was an alternative to animated GIFs, and an easy way to embed movies on web pages. But then advertisers wrapped their meaty mitts around it, and that's when Flash started to be annoying. However, one could block Flash in the browser, as part of a strategy of shutting out obnoxious advertising.
But publishing content via Flash is just wrong, for a number of reasons.
Dark interface themes are extremely popular with a small, but very passionate, group of Mac users. Sadly, since Apple introduced Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5), the old, relatively simple method of creating such themes on the Mac can't be used, and it took the theming community a good year and a half to figure out the current, relatively hobbled tools to theme the few bits of the interface that can be themed.
Given the weakened state of theming on the Mac, it's not surprising that the number of themes available has dwindled to a mere handful. And even those only go part of the way compared with what we used to be able to achieve with ShapeShifter. Still, the yearning for Mac themes remains strong among this community, and black themes are virtually nonexistent now.
Black themes have always been a challenge, because the frameworks used to build applications were designed to assume that text would always be black and the color of windows and buttons always light. Apple introduced a dark-theme paradigm a few years ago with its Heads-Up Display window style, which, with its translucent black background actually assumes that text will be white.
So, why would anyone undertake an effort to introduce a fully black theme for Snow Leopard?
I suppose it's because we Martians just can't step back from a challenge. Not to mention the fact that we, too, are afflicted with the passion for dark themes that many Earthlings suffer from. I also have a good starting point, having developed some useful techniques for the challenge through building CrystalClear Interface.
To acknowledge the theme's heritage, I've dubbed the theme Crystal Black.
In other words, the Web Inspector tool is nothing but an intricate, sophisticated, and extremely well designed web page!
Having built a Crystal Black CSS file for web pages in general, and with my past expertise in CSS, I attacked this challenge with relish! It reminded me of the time I realized that Dashboard widgets are, at their core, nothing but little web pages (as are simply apps for the iPhone). In tackling this one, the main question was, How should the various elements look? And the hardest part was inspecting the various parts in of the Inspector in great detail to determine which CSS rules governed their default appearance and behavior.
As I discovered, the WebKit has a a sub-framework called "WebCore," which in turn has a folder of resources specifically for the Web Inspector. In the Inspector folder, among other things, is a suite of CSS files that handle different aspects of the Inspector's design and behavior. Of these, the primary one I needed to tweak was called simply "inspector.css."
Crystal Black is a theme for Mac OS X "Snow Leopard" that I'm still refining and plan to release eventually. I published a preview of the theme last fall, and a few weeks ago released a Crystal Black theme for iTunes. The skins for both iTunes and CoverSutra will, of course, be included in the full theme once it's out.
Like many themers for Mac OS X 10.3 ("Panther"), I was awed by the beta releases of a theme called "Cathode" back in 2004. An artist named Dragun took the theme through a few iterations and then abruptly halted development.
Those of us who used ShapeShifter to run Cathode on our Macs understood why. Although Cathode was beautiful, in practice it was impractical. There were too many elements of too many applications that resisted a dark theme for buttons and window backgrounds.
For me, however—and I'm sure for many theming fans—the dream of using a beautiful black theme like Cathode was a siren call impossible to forget. Over the years, the dream receded further from our grasp because of roadblocks Apple erected—intentionally or not—to the existing mechanisms of theming Mac OS X.
Starting with Mac OS X 10.5 ("Leopard") in 2007, the main tool for applying Mac themes, ShapeShifter, went bye-bye and has never returned. This is one of the main reasons I continued development of CrystalClear Interface, because it was the only way for me to apply a fully realized theme to Mac OS X.
Since Leopard, themers have been able to finesse the problem by changing the system graphics files that apply buttons, menubar background, basic window shape and color, and a few other items to your window appearance. Despite best efforts to unravel the secrets of the Mac's new ways of drawing itself, this mechanism isn't able to consistently change text color in the many contexts in which it appears in a window, thus making design and use of dark theme impractical.
As I'll describe in a future article, tackling the design of Crystal Black, a new theme inspired by Cathode, has been far from easy. And there remain user interface elements that totally resist its charms. But for me, those elements are few enough to make Crystal Black practical.
At this point, I'm confident that I'll be able to complete Crystal Black and release it at some point for all Mac users of Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6). The theme is an offshoot of CrystalClear Interface (CCI) and uses much of the same code. However, Crystal Black is much simpler, has a smaller impact on the operating system, and is compatible with many more applications than CCI. Also unlike CCI, Crystal Black provides a complete theme for iTunes 10.
I recently released a major new version of CrystalClear Interface (CCI). Among the most significant enhancements in version 2.5 are its full compatibility with Mac OS X 10.6 ("Snow Leopard") and its ability to finally theme the Finder. Because of new limitations to system add-ons imposed by Apple, taming Snow Leopard has been a daunting challenge, but the final outcome is a version of CCI that's the most stable, robust, and compatible yet. The extended struggle with Snow Leopard over the winter is one of the primary reasons I've decided to require a license fee for CCI 2.5 ($12.00).
Besides the set of Crystal Document icons previewed recently, another feature of the forthcoming CrystalClear Interface 2.5 is a new set of eight beautiful preset themes, shown below. (Click the images for a closer look.) The themes are designed to complement the eight Frosted Crystals desktop pictures released with CCI 2.2. Of course, you can still set colors, frames, and transparency settings for Mac OS X windows to your own taste, as always. The preset themes are ones I've enjoyed and find a convenient shortcut to designing custom themes.
This is a set of 74 document icons intended to complement CrystalClear Interface and the set of Crystal Albook system and application icons I released a couple of years ago. The set covers most of the document types used by Apple's applications as well as a limited set of document types for third-party applications. The icon set for third-party apps will be augmented substantially as time permits.
These icons are available for download now, and they will be included in the forthcoming release of CrystalClear Interface 2.5 (more on that in another article). In CCI 2.5, you will be able to automatically install and uninstall the various icon sets displayed below, including any of the Crystal Docs icons for any of the third-party applications you use. The new icon install feature will be included in the new CCI Preferences window.
I posted the new version of CrystalClear Interface a few days ago, and then proceeded to hunt down and squash a couple of last-minute bugs. Yesterday, I was also moved to make one of the hard-wired features a configurable option. While not as dramatic an upgrade as version 2.1, CCI 2.2 nevertheless has a large number of new features, enhanced features, and bug fixes, as well a great deal of code optimizing. This article summarizes the more significant changes since version 2.1 was released in June.
These are snippets of the 9 "Frosted Crystal" desktop pictures that'll be distributed with CrystalClear Interface 2.2. The look of frosted glass looks terrific when viewed through CrystalClear windows! I hope you enjoy using them as much as I have.