The rise of made-to-order desktop decor finally lets PCs get personal.

By EW Staff
Updated November 05, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Day in and day out, you stare at your computer screen. It’s gray. It’s boring. It hasn’t changed much in the past decade. But it doesn’t have to be that way. What started back in the early ’90s with flying-toaster screensavers has blossomed into a landscape of wood-grained music players, Web browsers fit for the starship Enterprise, and even total makeovers that put Britney Spears on your desktop — complete with song snippets when you shut down.

This isn’t your older brother’s computer screen, and for that you can thank the rise of ”skins,” the do-it-yourself fashion revolution created by average folks yearning to inject a little personality into their digital lives. The idea, which originated in late 1996, came from teenage gamers who wanted to make their Quake characters look different in online multiplayer battles. Without the approval or knowledge of creator id Software, ”skinners” hacked into the game and modified the characters to look like Spider-Man or Krusty the Clown or Barney. Eventually id and other companies realized that the digital vandals were actually showing devotion — and playing the games more than ever.

The same pattern happened with popular shareware like MP3 music player Winamp, RealNetworks’ RealJukebox, and instant-messaging program ICQ — all of which now offer third-party skins, with proper credit and critical reviews, on their websites., for instance, has more than 3,000 skins, from sleek metallic-stereo looks to pop-culture tributes to Star Wars.

The two best places to both find skins and have your skins found are ( and ( The former has a directory of more than 5,900 skins for an amazing array of applications, from Winamp to ICQ to PalmPilot software. And goes even further, with skins, desktop themes, effects, and links to tutorials for the beginning PC plastic surgeon.

Yes, you can go beyond simply changing your screen background to your kid’s baby picture: Hundreds of theme sites move beyond skinning specific applications and let you give your entire desktop environment a face-lift by customizing wallpaper, icons, sounds, and even the Windows or Mac splash screens when you start or shut down the computer. (, one of the better hubs, offers more than 4,200 makeovers, including a faux Windows 2000 theme that lets you fool coworkers into thinking you already have the next generation of Windows. Even further out there is The Hive (, which includes a link that helps you change your Windows cursor to a dancing Coke can or a swimming sperm. This stuff can get complicated, so heed the site’s warning: ”Kids, I’d suggest not trying this on your parents’ computer.” A simpler shareware program called Chameleon Clock at ( lets you give your Windows clock a techno or even Stone Age look.

But why stop there? NeoPlanet ( allows you to change the look of your Web browser to such designs as the dark ”Gothic” or the gaudy ”X-Mas.” There’s even an Austin Powers browser (available at http://www.austin — a promo tie-in that hints at a healthy mainstream future for skins. While old-school software makers like Microsoft or IBM may never let their hair down, it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s the little guys who are helping us at last build virtual rooms of our own.