Skinning the blog, and everything else

Episode I: Boring your arse off with history

Fresh off our closely-argued eye-glazingly long discursion on E-books, time for a similar discursion on skins and content.

This one is so damn long that we’re going to spread the pain over the week. Because this week is pretty painful for us, and you have to share some.

Recent news hook, since you probably insist on that sort of thing: Adobe is starting up some amorphous multi-platform content (re)publishing “strategy” based on XML.

The lesson: For decades, you’ve never had full control over the ultimate form of your “content,” and you have even less control now. The surprise? Less control is better.

Along the way, we’re going to pursue that elusive presentation/content distinction. Previous coverage:

  1. Interface and content, surface and depth: Interfaces are too content!
  2. Le modernisme nous a donné le contenu: Modernism put the presentation/content or interface/content distinction on the map
  3. Aristotle, king of content: Actually, Aristotle put the distinction on the map


A lifetime ago, after unending complaints about the NUblog’s colour scheme and Netscape incompatibilities (the former altered, all of the latter fixed), we invited readers to skin the blog – to come up with your own redesigns of our existing content.

Didn’t go very far. Mihir Joshi gave it the old college try (we’re now using his white-background approach, with credit), but no one else was biting.

Were we merely ahead of our time? Consider:

Literature review

From Feed:

If a single development can be said to have triggered the recent surge of consumer interfaces, it is – appropriately enough – the rise of the MP3 sound format, and specifically the panoply of user-created “skins” available for MP3 players like WinAmp. As a grassroots interface design movement, the “skins” craze is probably second only to the rise of the Web itself in its scope and diversity. currently lists thousands of alternative skins for the WinAmp application, created by almost as many armchair interface designers.

[Next a brief synopsis of Brian Hayes’ dissection of QuickTime 4.0’s interface.] However much I agree with the sentiment behind Hayes’ critique, there’s still something slightly doctrinaire about it, something that neglects the energy and inventiveness of the skins craze, with its endless variations on the consumer interface theme. I think this explains the somewhat mixed feelings I have about the consumer interface as a genre. I appreciate the design flaws of the QuickTime player, but I still find myself enjoying it – if only because it looks so much more elegant that the gray, abstracted windows that otherwise populate my computer screens.

We’re living in an age of mass customization, as Gaetano Pesce noted. Seven Cycles will custom-build you a bike, and you can check its gestation online in real time. Any online bookseller will sell you any combination of books (yes, that’s an example of customization: brick-and-mortar bookstores can sell you only what’s in their real-world inventory, though online bookstores can’t always ship all your selections together).

Computers become an extension of the human mind, which includes a visual cortex; some of us want our computers to look special. The Mac OS, for example, is allegedly a tried-and-true, complete system in and of itself, but it still permits you to alter the desktop background, load random desktop pictures, and run desktop DVDs; there’s also the Launcher, a sort of Mac OS for Kids. (Years ago, we wrote about the progenitor of desktop customization, Wallpaper. It’s been bubbling up through the collective subconscious for a while.)

Customization is an accessibility issue: Some visually-impaired people simply cannot tolerate, say, a white screen. Furthermore, screen readers interpret visual interfaces differently. For certain disabled users, customization of the UI is the norm, not the exception.

Apple overlord Steve Jobs is understood to be push–pull on interface issues: He gives us the Appearance control panel but only one Theme – Apple Platinum, the Mac OS 8.5 default. The ostensible reason? Tech support prefers not to deal with the complexity of multiple different Macintosh interfaces that are unidentifiable and undiagnosable over the phone.

We buy that reasoning, but intelligent, experienced users should be able to select their own preferred interface, and commentators should refrain from praising one as “much more elegant that the gray, abstracted windows that otherwise populate my computer screens.” If you like it, go for it. (Interesting discussion of commercial potential of Themes. The Allegro Themes Project offers dozens of Mac OS Themes.)

Episode II: Multiformat

Let’s take a walk through the detritus of recent media.

Moral of the story? While there might be only a single Mona Lisa, a single instance of a media entity is rare.

The problem with “repurposing”

Ohh-kaaay. Now that you know more than you ever thought practicable about multiple media formats of the past, it’s time to consider the future.

Adobe, in a prototypical vapourware announcement, has declared that Net Publishing is the future. (“Why, it’s so modern! It’s ultramodern! Like living in the not-too-distant future!”) Net Publishing, were it to appear on the cover of the Rolling Stone, would bear the legend “He’s Hot, He’s Sexy, and He’s Dead.” Because “he” pretty much is.

[Some consultant or other] says that Net Publishing’s value depends on publishers who are pursuing a cross-media strategy. “If you’re publishing a magazine today, and you don’t have a desire to repurpose your content, could you get along without this?” he asks. “Sure. But if you do have a Web component, then you have a need to take content that was designed for a print environment and convert it to another medium. To the extent that that can be automated, then you can certainly try to take advantage of that.”

Then there’s this sexy new report you can buy. The propaganda declares:

Cross-media publishing (or “multi-channel,” to use the more recent buzzword) has been a preoccupation for both publishers and system providers for several years. The overall vision is very exciting – take your newspaper article, put it on the Web, send it to WAP phones, use all the emerging channels of information distribution. There is nothing totally wrong with this vision either. “Author once, distribute many” is clearly the general direction in which content providers are moving.

News flash: “Repurposing” cannot be automated

Pundits seem already to have forgotten the Web when discussing the forthcoming mobile “revolution.” Back in the day, we had to invent entire systems to “repurpose” our “content” from “print” to “E.” The fact that, say, a magazine article ended its life as a Quark Xpress file did nothing to make it suitable for Web publication. An electronic format – seemingly the necessary and sufficient qualification for E-publishing – was neither necessary nor sufficient. Among many other things, a print file lacks hyperlinks and will severely mangle the obstacle-strewn and klugey process of specifying Web typography. (Give it a whirl yourself. Do a quickie HTML export from Microsoft Word. The clean-up checklist is two screens long.)

Even using macros, we had to personally supervise each and every conversion of hundreds of old word-processing files to HTML – and that was HTML 2.0, producing the plainest-Jane pages conceivable.

Others shared this pain, and sought help from content management. Entire such systems were spun off – into standalone companies with arrogance to match their billion-dollar valuations. “Vignette was created by CNet and spun off a while back as a stand-alone business. Vignette is not profitable and has not achieved widespread acceptance by any means. The problem with content management systems is that the needs of each organization are so different that an amazing amount of consulting... is needed to make the darn things work.” In other words, even publishing words and pictures that never existed anywhere but on modern computers cannot be automated.

(Further, the still-young history of content management boasts the coining of the most vulgar and distasteful word in the whole of the English language, “repurposing.”)

What’s the rush?

But having already tired of Web content, which hasn’t even reached the training-bra stage, let alone a first date, suddenly everyone is horny for wireless content. When will people learn?

This stuff will not lend itself to automation. You will need staff to supervise each and every conversion. You will be tempted to hire technician guys and 22-year-old poli-sci-graduate girls straight outta school. Big mistake: To do this properly requires an eye, which the kids, with their deceptively-attractive el-cheapo salaries, simply do not have.

And don’t try to take shortcuts. Even producing a mere text-only variant or printable variant of an item will not suffice for, say, a mobile phone, because the head of the page will be strewn with navigation links you cannot readily skip on a small screen.

Back with the propaganda:

Imagine you are a newspaper publisher and you want to reach other channels, such as WAP. What will become increasingly clear is that each channel has its own needs and prerogatives; you do not read content on a Web site or on a Palm in the same way that you do on a printed page. These problems will become even more clear as new broadband media becomes more widespread. So where is the market for new services? Pfeiffer Consulting anticipates an increasing need for specialized service providers to assist original content generators in adapting their content to each channel. “Content Managers” would become preferred partners in turning the raw content from the provider into a best-of-breed platform-specific experience.

(Except that the term “content manager” already has a meaning. We need to coin some other term. We’ve already gone down that path with Web log, the list of hits your site received recently, and Weblog, a page of daily links or diaries.)

We see an opportunity here for the age-old industries involved in old-media adaptation. We’re just going to broadly hint. But, as so often happens in the world of online content, this kind of content conversion requires taste and acumen.

Posted on 2000-12-04