Google personal homepage gets skinnable

When I think of Google, I think of a site with a relentlessly consistent--and ultimately mundane--look and feel. Which is why a fairly minor new Google feature--dynamic themes (aka skins) for the Google Personalized Homepage--is worthy of comment here. (Google briefed me on this new feature on Monday; it should be live on the site on Tuesday morning.)

The Google Personalized Home Page, which is almost two years old now, is among Google's most practical features, especially now that you can customize your home page with thousands of useful gadgets from Google and third parties. But Google Personalized Homepages have been pretty prosaic, visually speaking--they've looked very much like every other Google service out there.

Dynamic themes change that, but they're as striking for what they don't do as what they do. They have a remarkably modest effect on the color scheme of your gadgets, but that's about it. Mostly, what they do is add a customizable graphical bar around the Google log--a sort of offshoot and expansion of the holiday logos that have been part of Google ever since there's been a Google. In other words, a themed homepage has a dash more personality than an unthemed one, but both retain an essentially Googley look and feel.

This is a modest launch in other ways, too: There are a grand total of six themes for now, involving subject matter like a Japanese garden, a cityscape, and a bus stop.

The "dynamic" in these dynamic themes means that you should notice changes in them from login to login. The image you see might reflect the time of day. (Google told me that the fox in the Japanese garden will be undertaking different activities over time.) Or maybe the weather in your area. Or possibly other factors which might lead to entertaining surprises.

I just selected the seasonal scape, and saw that it involves a snowman sitting in the dark--which he would be, since it's past midnight as I type this. (Of course, this is San Francisco, so I guess the image isn't paying attention to my Zip Code.) I'm not sure if that snowman will disappear as we enter the Spring and Summer, but I guess that's part of the fun.

Today's launch of dynamic themes for Google's Personalized Homepage is as striking for what it isn't as for what it is. For now, there are a grand total of six--count 'em, six--themes. (Google told me that it may ramp up the themes on a monthly or quarterly basis.) All the ones I've seen look pretty slick and tasteful; Google wants them to be all about personalization rather than, say, tying into movie promotions. All in all, they're modest and minimalist in the way that new Google features often are.

Can Web developers or regular folks create these dynamic themes? Well, maybe eventually--technically, there's nothing standing in the way of it being an open platform. But for now, Google told me, it wants to keep things simple and limited. So you'll get the themes that Google makes available. And they'll only appear if you have a Google Account and customize your Homepage--not in other Google features such as Gmail.

Little by little, Google seems to be allowing customizable, fancy-schmancy visuals to be part of its once relentlessly Spartan world--I'm thinking also of the Google Desktop's Sidebar, which has evolved from a plain-jane add-on to a Windows utility that's as rich and good-looking as Windows Vista's identically-named feature.

These dynamic themes are slick, too. And while they don't seem to advance Google's mission--"to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful"--in any way whatsoever, they do look like they'll be fun, especially if the graphical surprises keep a comin'. And like many a new Google feature before this one, it could be the start of something bigger....

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Harry McCracken

PC World
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