[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]doctorfrog has been around since the early days of Blackbox for Windows – the shell. Being quite active in the community, he has created lots of styles and is known for his witty posts both on lostinthebox and, yes, this site.[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]“My real first name is Matt”, he says. “I live in the Bay Area of California. I do not know what I want to do when I grow up. Right now, I do human resources management for a small mental health services company. My primary career title has been technical writer, and it's in juggling the many windows and roles in that line of work that finally cemented my use of bb4win in the early 00's. That, and multiple desktops make for a good "boss button." ;-)[/font]
df1.jpg 117.09KB 1 downloads
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]This is the first style that I felt like I was really happy with, and I'm a little sorry to say that it's mostly... very blue and gray, which are very lazy standbys in the world of user interfaces. But all the same, it served me well for some time. It marks the first time I felt like a style I made was complete in of itself.[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]1) When did you start using BB and had you used any other shells before?[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]I started tinkering with alternative shells in the late nineties, starting with the venerated LiteStep. The idea of ditching the Windows '95/'98 look was rebellious, and I was working in a call center, which was a high-control environment that was nonetheless poorly managed from the top. I was bored and needed something to tinker with that could legitimately be linked back to work. I could easily argue that a custom shell would allow me to do this (and to a point, it did).
I was probably introduced to the idea of alternative shells through Wired or Slashdot, which I checked daily back then. Windowblinds was ideal for very small children, but LiteStep was king of the highly configurable shells. LiteStep probably deserves the adoration and attention it got, but I wanted something more elegant and simple, self-sufficient and put-together. In trying to create a theme for LiteStep I grew dissatisfied with the complications involved and started looking elsewhere.
I switched to GeoShell, a wonderful little shell based on bars you could create and stick anywhere, usually to the edge of your screen. You'd have launchers, weather and news plugins, and of course task and tray bars. Or you could combine all of them into one long bar. On top of that, all it took to skin GeoShell was three little bitmaps: two endcaps and something to skin the main of the bar. Elegant and effective! But there was something even more enticing: bb4win, and its equally minimalistic spawn.
Grischka's fork of bb4win, bblean, locked me in. It was small, complete in itself, yet not self-assuming. There's a humility about blackbox that bblean echoes. It worked fantastically right out of the installer with minimal tinkering, but made tinkering a very real option if you wanted it. On top of that, bbstylemaker made designing styles a total joy. I was sold. I've been using it ever since, and I still hold onto hope that old grischka someday wanders back onto his old site and picks the project back up, especially if Windows 8, 10, or whatever breaks it beyond use.[/font]
df7.jpg 159.94KB 0 downloads
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]This was one of the first styles that I tried to wow myself with, to take risks and move beyond the comfortable blues and grays that I tended to use. It was fun to experiment, and I still like the look of a bright red stretched balloon that the "zombeh_sunset" style has.[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]2) What was BB's most notable characteristic that made you use the shell?[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]Honestly, what brought me to bb4win was the idea that you could create an entire skin ("style" in Blackbox lingo) with a text editor. No faffing about with paint programs, worrying about pixels matching up or creating a repeated tile effect. The shell would handle all that for you, as long as you precisely spelled out what you wanted in RGB or hex. The counterbalance is that you'd have some serious limitations in what you could do with your style. If you wanted to add a reptilian skin to your windows, you'd have to be happy with what simple gradients could accomplish to suggest such a thing. So while I can see why bb4win was never as popular as LiteStep, with its bitmap-based versatility and mountain of plugins, I was very attracted to the minimalism of bb4win—and the sheer challenge of trying to communicate texture through very simple means. I love that.
The bb4win community was always very positive and optimistic as well. The shell had a lot of optimistic energy behind it. It was fun to stop by and see what new plugins people had crafted, or what the local stylers had come up with. I like having a small set of boundaries, then pushing super hard at them and seeing how far you can take something. It's not about brash rebellion, it's more like tending a very small garden. I felt like I was part of a community that liked doing that, too.
What made me a life-long (so far) user was the fantastic utility of what was already a mature shell, clearly made for work. Features abounded. Hotkey manipulation of windows. On top/rollup of windows. Multiple desktops. Practical, simple plugins with next to no RAM overhead. The ability to add or remove shell features at a whim. A timeless, pixel-sharp, minimalistic UI that gets the hell out of your way and lets you get work (or play) done. And it (mostly) still works, remarkably.
These are all things that would make the average user yawn angrily and wonder why their icons aren't bouncing up and down or why translucent windows aren't doing backflips and taking up their entire screen. bb4win has never been about getting lots of attention. In that sense, it's hard to say whether bb4win and its ilk are hopelessly behind the times or just holding to a very practical standard of efficient user interface.[/font]
df2.jpg 217.79KB 0 downloads
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]Blue and gray strike back. Really, a style should look good, then get out of the way. This did so in its moment, for me.[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]Take a look at at iOS, Windows 8/10, tablet interfaces. Modern user interface design isn't about getting things done, it's about wowing the user and keeping them as tied to the device (and the "storefronts" bolted on) as possible. It's about hooking users first, everything else second. It's like UI design has become one big stupid Transformers movie, a blur of incoherent and shiny machine parts spraying information in all directions. Driven by competition and the desire to be "new" and make other stuff look "old" means forcing new visual choices on users every 6-12 months. And by and large, you have no choice but to adapt. Don't like it? Screw you, you'll have to buy a new device or updated your current one eventually.
They say that casinos are designed to keep you hemmed in, diverting you from exits, in a state of continual excitement, in the hopes that you spend more time, more money. I sometimes feel like modern UI design tries to do the same thing. An operating system UI was once a personal space that has been converted largely to serve the interest of the vendor, funneling you to purchase or consume as much as you can while using it, with them feeding voraciously off of your activity.
The bb4win branch of shells (again, in my case, bblean 1.17) is an escape from all that, and just the very slightest middle finger to it. It's an invitation to redefine the personal space of a desktop as you like, to truly personalize your personal space on a computer.[/font]
df3.png 494.39KB 2 downloads
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]This was a real try to make a suite of styles, and I think the results are a bit garish, really. But one does move on. I like to play with bsetroot and see what effects I can pull off with its releatively limited abilities.[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]3) What was your contribution to the community (styles, plugins, posts on the forums etc.)[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]I made styles, here and there. I tried to participate by cheering others on. I was never a coder. I really looked up to those who pushed the shell forward developmentally, and some prolific folks like yourself (pitkon), thewayofzen, Tres'ni, cht1hu, snkmchnb, Inauro, and the more recent youthful energy of meanmechanics. I look up to anyone who understands color and subtlety, who can reflect or communicate an idea without drawing an excess of attention to it. I'm jealous as hell of them, too.
In designing styles, I tried mostly to do something new with colors I hadn't done before, for better or worse. I desperately tried to stay away from dark grays and blues (and mostly failed). I also tried to evoke texture with the gradients, which was kinda fun. Again, this is probably very basic to anyone with a basic understanding of color, but for me, it's a real challenge to understand, and bb4win is a fun way to explore that. How can you evoke textures like cloth, metal, ceramic, backlit plastic, with simple gradients? How do you make a window or task appear "in focus" while making everything else "out of focus"? How do you make a UI look really nice, but also "invisible?" Heck, what colors just look really good together, and why? And what can you communicate with them?
Even as a mere style designer, there's a lot you can explore with UI design, and that's not even touching the versatility of bbinterface yet!
Later on, I became interested in what I could do with a style that required no additional downloads: no fonts, wallpapers, icons, etc. The wallpaper would be generated with bsetroot.exe, and the fonts would be those that come stock with bblean. It should look great at any resolution, just like the screenshot, and on any computer. It's a fun limitation to explore, and bblean just happened to come with some really great little pixel fonts.[/font]
df4.jpg 694.55KB 0 downloads
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]I really loved the soft mossy green of this style. I was playing a lot of IL-2 Sturmovik at this time, and have always had a soft spot for the Supermarine Spitfire. I was also trying to put together a set of styles, but never got to the point where I bundled them all.[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]4) What do you think about the shell and the community today, in contrast to the shell and the community back then?[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]The Blackbox for Windows/bb4win community and others like it, thrive mostly on the passions and goodwill of a dedicated few. Sometimes, those folks move on, and when that happens, a lot of the structure and drive of the community goes with them. But on the plus side, the burden of carrying the torch is very light. bb4win does not need a massive community to maintain its success. As a project, all it has to do is work.
bb4win is definitely a victim of time and progress. For example, bbleanskin doesn't appear to work properly with Windows' graphical acceleration, so you have to have a way to turn that off (in W7 this was the Aero interface). You then lose all the benefits of that feature, just so you can do without the garish default decorations and have a contiguous look to your shell. Pixels have become somewhat passe' and anyway, with 4K monitors on the horizon, very tiny bars are going to become very impractical compared to the 1024x768 resolutions Blackbox was born swimming in. So in a way, bb4win is behind the times.
So the question facing bb4win right now is whether it can remain relevant and useful as a Windows replacement shell. It should not strive to out-sex the competition, that was never its appeal. What it excelled at was being quiet, competent, and strong. There will always be a minority of people who care about such things; bb4win is for them.
Other dangers lurk. On one end, we have Microsoft evolving Windows, and continuing to lock its features down. Maybe changing the shell won't even be an option one day. On the other end, we might see Linux making a solid entry into the gaming market, removing a major reason for hobbyists to stick with Windows. Blackbox still exists as a viable shell for Linux, but not many distributions make use of it. There's also a trend in UI design towards a very pretty but ultimately untinkerable "walled garden," with a focus on embedding stores into everything and employing widgets designed to keep you continually engaged, moving away from real customizability. And sometimes, you just get used to it.
Honestly, I worry a bit. But not too much, because bb4win was never intended to be a mass-appeal product. All it needs is a couple developers, and a couple followers, and a place for them to hang out. And it's always had that.[/font]
df5.png 430.35KB 0 downloads
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]Red highlights are always fun. I miss being able to do window shadows in XP with yzshadow and I hope that there's eventually a way to do it with blackbox for windows, because it not only looks nice, but adds to usability.[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]5) What do you think the shell needs and how do you think it should evolve?[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]Since I'm not a developer, I can only humbly speculate. I would say that one or two really dedicated developers, and around 10 continually active, engaged users are all that's really necessary to continue evolving the shell. That's the advantage of being small: it doesn't take much to keep you going. 1 talented and willing developer, 10 excited and zealous users. All bb4win needs is a pulse and a steady hand, though those can be hard to cultivate. We're all so terribly busy these days.
I'm optimistic, to be honest. There's a real appeal to the look, feel, and capability of this tight little shell. It's simple and powerful, when every other interface burns calories trying to wow you. That counts for something among some people.
I think someone else might be able to put it better, but there's something tight and zen-like about Blackbox. What's a computer? A box. What's in the box? Whatever you desire, or don't desire. What do you use to work within the structure of the box? Do you use whatever is given to you, or do you wrest that control away and construct something that reflects you, your desires? Do you just change your wallpaper, or do you change everything?
One positive trend in UI design that I've noticed is toward more adaptive theming. I'm not entirely happy with it, but it's overall a good thing. In Windows 8, you can pretty easily select a single color, saturation, and brightness, and it'll (somewhat) theme around that color, with some translucency allowing backgrounds to show through. In the latest iTunes (also not my favorite software), when you view an album, it uses the colors from the album art to color the background and text, essentially allowing the content to determine the character of the interface. This, to me, is a conscious effort on the part of UI designers to at least give you the impression that you're personalizing the interface with your content choices. This goes hand in hand with the unattractive idea that "you are your purchasing choices," where interfaces assemble themselves based on what you've done as a consumer rather than allowing you to directly affect your UI, but more importantly, it's a step toward "zero config" theming.
With bbstylemaker, bblean made a big leap forward. Even though I find myself hand-tweaking this and that, every style I make starts with bbstylemaker. It's a very thoughtfully designed tool, but of course it can be improved upon. What if your style adapted itself just by changing your wallpaper? What if it was even smarter than that, and very subtly changed based on the time of day, or the weather? What if it intelligently created a new style every couple of days, and adapted to whether you liked them or not? These are dumb gimmicks, admittedly, but what other things could we do to make the shell attractive to users, but without sacrificing the minimalistic approach?[/font]
df6.png 29.9KB 0 downloads
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]The boring now. This is a style that's at least two years old. It doesn't use gradients, but writing this interview article tempts me to break out the crayon box again..[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]A fitting and moving footnote:[/font]
[font="helvetica, sans-serif;"]“I would encourage anyone who personalizes their interface to take occasional screenshots, just as you would take a selfie. It's a snapshot of who you were, and what you cared about, at that moment in time. It's also just as silly as a selfie. Do it anyway. You're telling your future self what you're about, and that's always fun” _doctorfrog.[/font]