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Summary: It's all about appearances. Learn how to use the latest tools to make your OS/2 desktop look absolutely gorgeous.

Before you go any further, take a look at this screenshot* (.GIF, 263K) of my current OS/2 desktop. Yes, that CD player at the bottom does work.

I won't speculate on what your reasons might be for creating a killer looking desktop, although I will guess that they have something to do with eliciting deep jealousy from all your friends. Fraternal rivalry and that sort of thing. A good looking desktop can also be a highly useful one too, because much of the beauty you can put into it will take functional form, as you'll soon see.

The Instant Fix

Some programs on the market for OS/2 will spruce up the operating system's looks instantly, that being anything from their secondary function (Object Desktop, Smart Windows etc.) to their sole and dedicated purpose in life (PlusPak: Themes, CandyBarz). Here's a list of some programs that you can download or purchase today that will add a little chrome to the OS/2 screen:

  • Object Desktop - The latest version, 2.0, does twice as much snazzing up as its predecessors with the ability to select from several different visual themes or personalities for your standard titlebar and window controls. Its other modules such as the Control Center and Tabbed Launchpad aren't bad looking either, and it can supply cool 3D borders to the icons and titles of your WPS objects too. Commercial software.
  • SmartWindows - Does even more than Object Desktop when it comes to sprucing up titlebars and controls, although you shouldn't mistake it for being a complete Object Desktop replacement. SmartWindows is a definate must-have utility, for it not only has a wider range of frame control themes to choose from (close, maximize, minimize buttons, etc.) but it also supports adding bitmaps or gradients to titlebar backgrounds too. Shareware currently in a free beta testing phase.

    SmartWindows at work

  • CandyBarz - Its sole existence is to add the cool gradients (horizontal or vertical) to your titlebars. SmartWindows does everything that CandyBarz does and more, however, so there's little reason to use it now. Free software.
  • Dialog Enhancer - Spruces up the default dialogs (such as file open, basic information and alert dialogs etc.) with replacements that not only use the WarpSans font everywhere, but also arrange things to make them easier to use. Since this utility simply replaces resource defenitions in OS/2, it has a very low RAM usage. Shareware.
  • NPS WPS - This workplace shell enhancer has been around for a long time now. It brings with it mostly functional improvements, but one cosmetic feature that can't be beat is the drop-shadows it adds to all of your open windows, even seamless WinOS/2 sessions. Its window open-and-close animations are fun to watch too and tend to get a reaction out of anyone who hasn't seen them before. Freeware.
  • PlusPak: Themes - From Stardock, this is like buying a bag of gourmet icons. In it are two basic themes: "Office" and "2000", each of which come in about half a dozen color varieties and replace all of OS/2's system icons (System Setup, default folder and URL objects, plus several of the "Program" folder icons). There's also four smaller "Mini Themes" that replace the five key desktop icons with ones based on Greek/Roman, Egyptian, Golden-Age American and "Santa Fe" cultures (The icon for the Assistance Center in the "Classic" or Greek theme is an olympic torch, for example). PlusPak:Themes includes a simple one-step procedure for applying a whole theme to your desktop, so you're not buried thick in Properties notebooks. Commercial software.

Background Inventiveness

Background being composed in Photo-Graphics

The next most obvious technique is to use the facilities already provided by the operating system. These include setting desktop and folder backgrounds, changing the color scheme and the way object icons are presented. Most of what you see in my own desktop example is achieved this way. Those cool, anti-aliased object titles and transparent borders were not pulled off by a whiz-bang enhancement utility like the ones listed above. They were done in a graphics program, Photo>Graphics Pro to be exact. It's an example of how you can "color outside the lines", so to speak. Since you can draw anything as the background, why not use illusion to make it appear as part of the foreground?

With drawing tools I created the transparent rectangles, gave them a drop shadow and a beveled edge (so they stood out and didn't appear to be part of the background), and icon titles rendered in smooth and anti-aliased text. Rendered in .BMP format and set as the desktop background I then positioned the icons very carefully over their pre-marked spaces, opened the Properties notebook for the desktop, navigated to the "View" tab and unchecked the "Visible" option for the icon titles. The OS/2 supplied titles were now gone, the icons remained, and sat neatly in their spots next to their nice anti-aliased titles. Since the main desktop icons (OS/2 System, Assistance Center, Connections, Programs and Shredder) never move, the fact that their titles and "tiles" cannot move either is a moot point.

If I do want or need to move the icons, it's a trivial measure to open up Photo>Graphics and shift their associated decorations around too. Consider that as a tip when creating your backgrounds: use an object oriented program that lets you move images around independantly and save your work in two formats; the program's native format that keeps the objects separate and workable, and the BMP format so that OS/2 can use it as a background. Such programs you can use under OS/2 are the aforementioned Photo>Graphics, Embellish and StarOffice.

The Desktop Integrated CD Player

The CD player at the bottom was made in exactly the same way, but I'm not kidding when I say that it really is functional. Double click on the play, stop, forward, backward or eject buttons and the CD ROM drive will respond - if it has an audio CD in it. The controls are regular desktop Program objects, set to run tiny, minimized batch files that send commands to the real CD player that's also running minimized in the background. It responds quickly because the batch files are small and usually stay in the cache.

To do it I first I downloaded a program called "Simple CD Player". It's a character-mode program, meaning it doesn't have a Presentation Manager GUI, but that doesn't matter since it will be run minimized all the time anyway. What this CD player does that's different from all the others is accept commands through a named pipe. A named pipe is a means of communicating between programs in OS/2, and are very easy to feed data to. You can send data to a named pipe on the command line in fact, like this:

echo play > \pipe\cdp00

Simple CD Player listens to the pipe called "cdp00". Send a standard CD player command to that pipe, and it'll do as the command says. Valid commands are: "prev", "next", "play", "stop", "eject", and "load" (closes the CD tray and door).

With the translucent magenta bars in place, as drawn in Photo>Graphics Pro and saved as the desktop background, I created a set of icons that resembled CD player controls. Each icon, used for a Program object, launched a simple batch file. In the batch files were the commands to send messages to the real CD player running minimized and in the background. So for example, the PLAY.CMD file contained the line shown above, while the BACK.CMD contained this:

echo prev > \pipe\cdp00

as its sole contents. And FORWARD.CMD contained this:

echo next > \pipe\cdp00

In the Properties for the program objects that launch these small batch files you'd make sure they were all set to launch minimized, so you don't see windows momentarily popping up every time you go forward or back a track.

If you have Object Desktop or Keyboard Plus, you might want to go another step further and assign all of these commands to keyboard shortcuts. Just open the Keyboard Launchpad (or Keyboard Plus), drag-n-drop the CD control icons into the list, and give them all a key-combination. I assign Back and Forward to Shift+Alt+Right-arrow key and Shift+Alt+Left-arrow key respectively. Play is Shift+Alt+Up, stop is Shift+Alt+Down, and Eject is Shift+Alt+Plus-key (on the numeric keypad). From any application, a web browser, a mail client or word processor, I can start and stop my CD player without having to switch to another application or take my hands off the keyboard - a feature that isn't in any other CD player for OS/2.

Beginning to see what I mean about beauty being functional too?

If at any time you want to know what track the CD is on, just choose "Simple CD Player" from the window list. The program also supports a pipe command that queries it for the current track and position, an enterprising individual could create a Rexx program that polls the CD player at regular intervals and updates an dummy icon on the desktop with the current track. This was a job that was a little bit beyond the scope of this article and my deadline, however.

More Tricks To Impress Your Friends

While adding programs and creating desktop backgrounds can be very expensive on your memory, there are other ways to improve the look of your desktop. The first place you should go to is the Scheme Palette, which gives you many more options for customizing the interface than just drag-n-dropping from the color palette. Try changing the border thickness of your windows for a start, making them thinner or even thicker than their default of 3 pixels. Also try experimenting with the 3D Highlight-Bright and 3D Highlight-Dark colors to change how titlebars are emphasized.

Last but not least, try grabbing a pack of new icons and swapping them around. You don't have to buy PlusPak:Themes to get a good looking set of themed icons, there are literally thousands you can download by FTP from the Hobbes Icon directory.

* "Crazy fox with water guns" artwork was created by and is copyright Alan Mackey.

Download a zip file (.ZIP, 8K) that includes my CD player icons, the batch files that control the CD player itself, plus a .GDO file for those with Photo>Graphics - just add your own background bitmap or color or fade.

* * *

Object Desktop 2.0

by Stardock Systems, Inc.
MSRP: $99.95

Smart Windows .81 Beta

by Alessandro Cantatore
download from The Hobbes Archive (675K)
Registration: N/A


by Matt Wagner
download from The OS/2 Netlabs (102K)
Registration: Free

Dialog Enhancer

by Richard Castle
download from the Dialog Enhancer homepage (1.1 megs)
Registration: $15

NPS WPS 1.82

by TAKASUGI Shinji
download from OS/2 Supersite (101K)
Registration: Freeware

PlusPak: Themes

by Stardock Systems, Inc.
MSRP: $19.95

Simple CD Player

by Dmitry Kubov
download from The Hobbes Archive (31K)
Registration: Freeware
Copyright © 1998 - Falcon Networking ISSN 1203-5696
December 1, 1998