DesktopX marks the spot

If there is one thing we would like to do for our users it's make their lives simpler. And the way we'd like to do that is limit what they can do. If we could lock down their PCs so they could do only five or seven things and not the 120,915,412 things they are wont to do, we would be happier. Then they could get their work done without loading software, playing solitaire and running applications we haven't approved.

We have found the answer to this problem: DesktopX from Stardock. DesktopX is a type of skinning application. Stardock also produces the WindowBlinds product. That software can change the look and feel of Windows title bars, scrollbars, push buttons, the Start bar and every other part of the operating system user interface.

Whereas tools such as WindowBlinds just change the look and feel of application interfaces, DesktopX adds a new dimension to skinning by making it possible to dictate how users interact with the operating system. It lets you modify and extend or even completely redefine the user environment and replace as much or as little of the interface functionality as you please.

While DesktopX runs under all versions of Windows from 98 onward, when used with Windows XP and Windows 2000 it becomes a powerful desktop management tool.

Objects overview

With DesktopX you can create and control "objects" that implement any functions or services you like. For example, you can create an object that is a clock, a calendar or a news reader. Or it could be a weather forecast display, a stock ticker or a system status dashboard. And you can manage how much control the user has over the objects and the system they run on.

You can create objects that are shortcuts to files or applications, URLs, other objects, system commands (find, logoff, etc.) or replacements for system objects such as the system tray, taskbar or even the management functions of DesktopX.

You can even aggregate objects to create complete "themes" that can be partial or total replacements of the Windows user interface with more or less any look and feel. DesktopX comes with a tool called IconX that makes icons active so they do things such as zoom visually when the mouse crosses them or respond with sounds when clicked or double-clicked.

DesktopX objects can be driven by scripts written in VBscript or JavaScript (C# and XAML are promised in the near future), and it includes its own script editor. What is really cool is that DesktopX scripts can control ActiveX components, so an object could embed an Excel spreadsheet, a Windows Media Player, a combo box, a Web browser or any other control you please.

On the DesktopX Web site you'll find some impressive examples of objects, including one that can control X-10 devices and another called SysMetrix that is a skinnable clock and metering application that can monitor and report on a remarkable number of system attributes and values.

The potential of this product for building highly controlled, task-specific user environments is phenomenal. Under XP or Win 2000, you could create an interface layout that showed menus of applications and a task list, and then restrict the application's display area so that the menus and task list could never be obscured.

And with the security controls you also could remove access to the right-click menu, disable the task manager, disable registry-editing tools and other things users could get themselves into trouble with, and lock down the DesktopX control menu with a password.

This is a killer app, and there's a free version if you don't care about security features. And if you want to get serious about creating controlled environments with security there's DesktopX Enhanced for an amazingly inexpensive US$19.95.

For power users there's DesktopX Professional LX (US$129),which along with all the other features lets you generate stand-alone applications from objects for personal, non-commercial use. DesktopX Professional (US$499) is for commercial software developers and allows redistribution. This is an incredible tool that you just have to try!

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Mark Gibbs

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