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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.)
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.)
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.
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.
The Transparent Experiment Lives!
CrystalClear Interface 2.0 will soon enter a public beta release. This is a major step from the previous version, released in March 2008 and described in the Mars article:
Those of you who found CCI 1.9 outlandish no doubt find that version 2.0 sets a new standard for outlandishness.
This release fixes a problem with the uninstaller, and is otherwise the same as 1.9.0. (Note: Today’s update fixes the error in yesterday’s release, which inadvertently still had the 1.9.0 installer. Sorry about that!) The uninstaller now runs a new utility, GraphicsToggle, after running the installer/uninstaller, and this takes care of making sure the Leopard graphics are fully restored. See the documentation included with the download for more information about GraphicsToggle.
This unexpected journey into the realm of transparent user interfaces has taken me much further than I ever imagined. It's been almost a year now since the first inkling of the idea rattled my brain, which led to the first release of Crystal Clear for ShapeShifter in mid-February.
Thanks to the Cocoa InputManager SetAlphaValue, I was led, Pied-Piper-like, into the enormous and strange world of Objective-C and Cocoa during the summer. I'm finally surfacing from that expedition and have brought a souvenir of my travels into the strange, terrifying, and glorious realm of Cocoa.
Each computer user will have to decide for themselves just how much transparency they can stand while working at their Mac. I was surprised at the amount of loathing that was expressed towards Leopard's newly translucent menubar last month. But I don't think it's indicative of any permanent flaw in the concept. Quite the contrary, in fact: If anything, Leopard's toying with translucency is too much of a baby step, on the one hand, and smacks of me-tooism with Vista, on the other.
Very briefly, the premise I'm proposing is that our computer monitors are essentially glorious light sources, much like the ones that shine through windows in our houses and automobiles. Just as we do with those windows, there are times when we want to bask in the beauty shining through, and other times that we prefer to close the blinds to avoid glare. On the computer, we already know how to close the blinds. I'm suggesting that there's a world of beauty awaiting computer users who can enjoy the light as well.
I can’t believe it’s been 2 months since I published the preview article for Crystal Clear 1.5! What was going to be a 2-3 week project after that turned into a monster of a project that’s taken me on several journeys into the bowels of Mac OS X and Cocoa, the primary framework for building Mac OS X software in the programming language Objective-C. But the story of those journeys–if I ever have time to write them down–is an article unto itself.
Today, I just want to briefly report what’s going on with Crystal Clear. Besides the features noted in August, the screen movie above shows a variety of noteworthy advances, some obvious and some not so obvious. Here are the ones I want to point out in particular: