LiteStep: A Dialogue
--LiteStep is a shell replacement for Microsoft's Windows operating systems.
--I see. What's a shell, and, also, what's a shell replacement?
--Excellent questions, both. I take it you know what I mean when I refer to "the desktop", right?
--Yeah, it's the screen.
--That's right, or you can think of it as your background image.
--My background is verdant rolling hills and a beautiful blue sky.
--Congratulations. You know how there are icons that sit on top of the desktop?
--And you know the taskbar at the bottom of the screen?
--And you know the Start menu?
--And you know the system tray?
--Yeah. I mean, no.
--Well, the clock at the bottom-right of the screen, and all the little icons to the left of that clock, you know those?
--Like the volume speaker and the two computers linked together, and AOL?
--Okay, that's the system tray. Now, the icons plus the taskbar plus the Start menu plus the system tray are what make up the Windows shell.
--I think I understand. Why is it called a shell, though?
--Dunno. Anyway, this shell is actually just a program, like Microsoft Word or Internet Explorer. You know how most program names end in .exe?
--Well, this shell is just like any other program, and it's called Explorer.exe (or sometimes, I believe, desktop.exe). Only thing is, this particular program executes every time you turn your computer on, and it has to load up before you can do anything else.
--I'm with you so far, but where does LiteStep come into play?
--I'm so glad you asked that. You see, it is possible -- if one is really smart and very clever -- to load a different program than Explorer.exe when you start your computer; this is a little like running Netscape instead of Internet Explorer. Just like Netscape and Internet Explorer will both browse the web, LiteStep.exe (the program that gets executed instead) and Explorer.exe are both shells, which means they both give you the user access to the contents of your hard drive and the tools of your operating system. So, when I said earlier that LiteStep is a shell replacement, I meant exactly what I said -- LiteStep replaces the default Windows shell.
--In other words, it gets rid of the icons, the taskbar, the Start menu, and the ...
--Yeah, right, the system tray. It gets rid of all that stuff, and replaces it with.... With what?
--Well, actually, that depends on the user. You see, LiteStep is highly, highly configurable. Without exaggerating too much, you can replace all that stuff with anything you want. If you had the time and the ridiculous inclination, you could turn your LiteStep shell into an exact replica of the Explorer shell, right down to the taskbar color and the font of the system tray's clock.
--You're right, that does sound ridiculous. Okay, so, we're pretty sure that we don't want to merely replicate the Explorer shell. What else could we do?
--What do you say we start at the base level, and work our way up from there?
--Okay, let's do that.
--Okay, at the very least, you need a way to get access to certain basic features of your computer -- a file manager, the control panel, a text editor, a web browser, perhaps certain other programs you use all the time. In the Explorer shell, you could find all these things in the Start menu, right? Just click 'Start', then click 'Programs', and there they were, all nicely -- or not-so-nicely -- organized.
--In my case, not-so-nicely.
--That's kinda what I figured. Anyway, with the LiteStep shell, you don't even need a Start button at the bottom-left of your screen; you can just map our 'Programs' menu (the list that used to be accessed through Start->Programs) to the right-click button. That way, any time you right-click on the desktop -- be it on your verdant hills or on your beautiful blue sky -- the 'Programs' menu pops up, from which you can access anything you like. This 'Programs' menu is fully customizable, so you can put anything you want in it -- for instance, commonly used applications, documents, folder or drive listings, media files, and so forth -- and you can organize it any way you want.
--You said we'd only be right-clicking on the desktop, and that there wouldn't be a Start button. If that's the case, then what's on the desktop right now?
--As I said, we were starting at the base and working our way up. Right now, there is absolutely nothing on the desktop, other than your background image. No taskbar, no icons, no clock. The only thing you can do in this shell right now is right-click on the desktop to bring up the 'Programs' menu.
--No clock? What the fuck?
--I know, I know. But we'll get to that, don't worry. This 'Programs' menu is what's known in LiteStep terminology as a module. LiteStep offers hundreds and hundreds of modules, each offering its own functions. Every time you load a new module, you add some new functionality to your shell. As it stands right now, we only have one module loaded: the module that allows us to right-click on the desktop to bring up the 'Programs' menu.
--Let's load a clock module next.
--I don't want to have to tell you again, I'll get to the clock when I'm ready to get to the clock. If you bring it up again, it'll be the last thing I mention.
--Fine, forget the clock ... for now. What else can we do?
--I'm glad you asked. There's also a shortcuts module. It's called "the shortcuts module", but basically what it does is allow you to put icons on your desktop. These icons can look like anything: pictures (like the icons you're used to seeing in your Explorer shell), simple shapes, a picture of your head, or even text (that is, an image of text). For instance, say you didn't have a background image, so that all you saw when you looked at your screen was white. Just white, and nothing else. If you wanted, you could use your favorite graphics program to create four images: a circle, a triangle, a rectangle, and a pentagon. These four images would also have white backgrounds; their lines would be black. Using your shortcuts module, you could place these four images in the exact center of the screen, lined up horizontally, spaced equidistant. You could also configure the shortcuts module so that double-clicking on the circle opened Internet Explorer, double-clicking on the triangle opened Notepad, the rectangle opened Excel, and the pentagon opened Visual Studio.
You just created four icons, you placed them where you wanted them, and you assigned programs to them. So, LiteStep replaced the icons of the Explorer shell with "the shortcuts module", which you in turn configured to your own liking. You made the icons look the way you wanted them to, you put them where you thought they should go, and LiteStep did not start you off with default icons, nor did it refuse to let you remove certain icons from your screen. It's as clean or as cluttered as you want it to be; no more, no less.
--So, basically, LiteStep gives me more control over my desktop.
--That's exactly right. Now you're starting to catch on.
--What else can it do?
--Take, for example, your precious clock. There are a number of ways in LiteStep to display the time, but the one I see most often is by use of the label module. This label module acts a bit like a Post-It Note. Basically, it allows you to display a string of text somewhere on your desktop; you can control where it goes, what it looks like (font, text color, text size, etc.), and what the background looks like (you can even make the background yellow, if it helps to think of it more as an actual Post-It). So, if you have an important job interview on Thursday at 10:00 AM, perhaps you would create a label for yourself before you go to bed at night reminding you of the interview and then put that label in the very center of your screen. That way, when you turn your computer on in the morning, that particular label is the first thing you see.
--What good does that do me? I can't use a Post-It Note to tell time.
--Excellent point, my friend; excellent. In addition to static content (reminders, phone numbers, etc.), these labels can also display dynamic content, meaning content that changes. You can actually create a label that tells you the time, right down to the seconds, if you want. Every second, the label changes, because the seconds are incrementing. What's more, you're not stuck with a clock that looks like "3:45 PM". As usual, you can do anything you want. You can make it say "45 after 3 on the 19th of August in the year of our Lord 2004." The 45, the 3, the 19, the August, and the 2004 would all change, depending on the time and date. Unfortunately, you cannot substitute the "our Lord" for Allah, Yahweh, Vishnu, or anything else. You can, however, position the label anywhere you want.
By the way, the dynamic content of labels doesn't stop with dates and times. You can display, on your desktop, the name of your machine; the name of the user logged in; your IP address; how much RAM you're currently using; how much total RAM you have; how much RAM you have left; how long your machine has been up; your CPU usage; the internal temperature of your computer; and on and on.
--Tell me more! Tell me more!
--Hotkeys: the ability to 'map' programs to keyboard shortcuts. For instance, if I pressed Ctrl+Alt+Shift+F7 on my computer at home, PowerPoint would open itself up. I wouldn't even have to right-click on the desktop to bring up the 'Programs' menu and then search for the program I wanted; all I need to do is press the right keyboard combination.
Virtual desktops: the ability to double, treble, quadruple, quintuple, and so forth the size of your monitor. You can open three Internet Explorer windows in one desktop, then switch to a second desktop and open Outlook Express and mIRC, then switch to a third desktop and open AOL Instant Messenger (or, perhaps, DeadAIM) and hold several conversations there, and finally switch to your fourth desktop to run Winamp or MusicMatch Jukebox. As far as I know, you can have an unlimited number of desktops, though to be honest I haven't tried to create 10,000, or even anywhere near that.
Mail checking: the ability to create something very similar to a dynamic label, only this label tells you if you have e-mail, when you get new e-mail, and how much unread e-mail you have, configured to check automatically after so many minutes.
Taskbar: the recreation -- in a more configurable, aesthetically-pleasing form -- of the taskbar of the Windows shell. It tells you what programs you current have open, but you can basically make it look like whatever you want, and, of course, you can put it wherever you want.
All four of those are brought to your shell by loading their respective modules. The more modules you load, the more your shell can do for you. There are modules to control Winamp, there are modules that are actually little games, there are modules that monitor your network traffic, and so on and so forth. It never ends.
--Whew! After all this, I'm so tired I think I need a nap. Where do you suppose a fellow could learn more about LiteStep?
--The obvious place would be the web. First, try http://www.litestep.com/, followed by http://www.listestep.net/. The best place for modules is http://www.loose-screws.com/. If you need help, you may find your answers at http://www.lshelp.com/, a subsidiary of litestep.com. General desktop modification information can be gleaned from http://www.desktopian.org/ or http://www.shellfront.org/. I hope you have learned well, friend.
--Yeah, but, to tell you the truth, it sounds like a bit more trouble than it's worth. I don't know how much I want to work at my computing experience; this is Windows, after all, not Linux.
--All right, suit yourself.
--I believe I will. Goodbye.