SKIN DEEP; Computer owners tired of drab virtual desktops are dressing them up with an array of sights and sounds.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What do Frank Zappa, the Loch Ness Monster and pastel powder blue have in common?

They're all styles of the latest computer craze called "skins" taking the cyberworld by storm, as millions of PC owners are giving Windows, Internet browsers and hundreds of other programs the equivalent of a digital face lift.

"People are realizing that you don't have to stare at those plain, bland boxes that we've been used to in Windows and other programs for so long," says Ken Ray, a 31-year-old graphic artist from Durham, N.C., who has designed dozens of skins. "The movement has spawned a whole new generation of computer artists, and it's moving across cultures faster than you can snap your fingers."

The concept of skinning is not unlike redesigning your home's kitchen or living room. If you're tired of looking at the colors and shapes of a room, you can always paint the walls or rearrange the furniture. The same is true now of a computer environment, except you're painting and rearranging the windows on your PC.

Take, for instance, a simple program called WindowBlinds that will put a new face on the windows you call up in even the most basic Windows operations. Click on the "My Computer" icon on your desktop and WindowBlinds can make the pop-up window multicolored, or bordered with jagged lines, or adorned with eerie-looking green squids, if you're into that look.

"I like skins because I have a personal computer," says Ray, whose favorite skin he designed is based on "The Jetsons" cartoon. "It's supposed to be personal. Skinning is like a drug; once you realize you don't have to look at boxes and can customize the interface, you've got to have it."

Many programs, such as the popular music player Winamp and the oft-downloaded ICQ communications tool, allow users to skin with virtually no computer experience.

Just download any of the thousands of available skin themes, ranging from Frank Sinatra to scenes from your favorite movie, and voila! The program has a completely new look on your computer, and will even add new sounds if you want. You can now browse the Web with an Austin Powers skin that will yell "Groovy, Baby" any time you click on your search engine.

Web sites like www.skinz.org have nearly 10,000 skins available for more than 100 programs, and skin aficionados say that skinning is more than just a fad. Some skin artists, who toil away with computer bitmap images to create promotional skins advertising new movies, Web sites and even stereo products, can make up to $40 an hour at their electronic canvas.

"Everything in our world is sold by design and by the way it looks, so software shouldn't be any different," says Chad Boyda, 20, a software company owner in Dublin, Calif., and one of the founders of www.skinz.org. "People are starting to realize you can market software by look and feel. They realize that this is a feature that people want to have on their computers."

Most of the skins that are made and submitted to skinz.org are made by people using generic graphics programs on PCs. Most don't require much more ability to design than knowledge of a mouse and a good graphics program.

But not everyone is a fan of the skins concept. Some complain that skinning will push software designers into making programs designed for looks and not functionality.

Among the form-over-substance critics is Greg Knauss, a Los Angeles computer programmer and writer for several Internet news sites who recently attacked the phenomenon as "Skin Cancer." Knauss likens skinning to "the computer equivalent of back-alley chin tucks."

Knauss said recently that he thinks the public will eventually mount opposition to skins because people "will find that they can't figure out how to use their software anymore."

"I leave the operating system as plain vanilla as I can -- a single-color desktop with gray-on-gray dialogue boxes," Knauss says. "Maybe I'm getting old, but I'd much rather work with the software than work on it."

Skinners take it personally when they're attacked.

Knauss recently was "flamed" -- computer jargon for assailed -- on a skinz.org message board after one of his Internet columns summed up skinning: "Usability has recently been chloroformed, hog-tied and stuffed in the trunk. ... The tyranny of skins has begun."

But for many, the attraction of skins stems from the idea that Windows, for so long considered an imposing, unchanging, monolithic institution of the computer age, is no longer dictating its own terms.

Now, the average user can control the look, and even the applications, of Windows and Internet Explorer.

Jamy Sheridan, a professor of computer art at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, said he thinks of skinning as the modern man's outlet for controlling -- at least in part -- the computer age.

"There's a strong social need for people to counter the world of the code," Sheridan said. "People don't want to be controlled by the code. They want to control it. And skins allow you to do that, by making your computer a direct, functional extension of you."

Sheridan said young artists are drawn to designing skins, which he said are as legitimate a form of art as oil paintings were in the era of Vincent van Gogh.

"It's going to lead to a lot of growing artwork," Sheridan says. "The whole world is about to skin. This is a way for people to make the highly standardized, rigid cyberworld feel like it's a customized human experience."

But skinning isn't just for a few artists in cyberspace. Microsoft has joined the growing list of skin designers. The forthcoming version of Windows Media Player, the default application for movie and audio files for many PC users, will offer skinning.

Recently, Netscape introduced a skinnable interface for browsing the Web, a first for that company.

Among the most popular skin programs is NeoPlanet, an Internet Explorer skinner that offers many handy features and a slick interface that can be outfitted with themes ranging from those of English cricket teams to the dark world of "The Blair Witch Project."

The numbers of downloads for each of the NeoPlanet skins tells the story of their popularity and are a testament to the surge in interest of Internet browsing skins. A Bugs Bunny skin has been downloaded by 11,646 people. A "Star Trek" Klingon theme was downloaded 41,118 times. Another theme created in the style of the movie "The Matrix" led to 60,092 downloads.

"I started making desktop themes as well as ICQ sound themes and I could not resist the skin challenge," says NeoPlanet skin designer Rob Thom, whose Frank Zappa skin featuring a dog with sunglasses has been downloaded 32,000 times. "You'll get the humor if you're a fan of the music."

Most who tinker with skins say it can be a release from the boredom of needing to use a computer for hours at a time, either at work or home.

"People turn to skinned programs because they like change," says Jason Mayer, 25, a skin designer who runs a computer store in Montreal. "They like art, or they just like that Jennifer Lopez Winamp skin as their default theme. Just like the world is constantly changing, people want life in their programs that they use every day."

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