Windows into Mac, part 2

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Technology

Continued from part 1.

There are a plethora of reasons why Window Management is easier on Windows than on Mac OS, but I want to home in on one aspect in particular: The Windows Taskbar and the Mac OS X Dock.

I remember when the Dock debuted in OS X, hearing that it was a human interface disaster. And, a few years later I started using it. The Dock is one of those features that looks really great on display, but when you sit down to actually use the thing you quickly realize its limitations.

When I started using OS X many years ago, Mac computers were still using standard-size monitors. Lately, however, all Macs come with these widescreen monitors. I’m still not quite sure what the supposed benefit of a widescreen monitor is supposed to be over a standard screen. Is having less vertical space but more horizontal space really all that useful? I seem to notice that vertical space is a lot more useful than horizontal space, particularly if you do a lot of reading. But I digress. So every new Mac comes with a 16:9 monitor, and at the top of the screen we have a 50px high menubar, and at the bottom of the screen we have a 300px high Dock, immediately taking up a sizeable amount of vertical real estate on our display.

Here’s a picture of the Dock in a standard install configuration. You can pretty much envision the usable screen area as consisting of 75% of the area between the menubar and the dock. The sides also need some wiggle room since you need to be able to stack windows and use the scrollbars.

Starting OSX Desktop

Yes, the Dock can be moved to the side. Yes, the Dock can be shrunk in size. Even at the smallest size and shoved off to the side your Dock will still take up ~5% of your screen. If you shove the Dock over on the right side of your screen you’ll get the added benefit of having it constantly overlapping your window scrollbars, so the left side is pretty much the only realistic option.

So what exactly is the Dock useful for anyway? Well, it does two main things: It stores icons for commonly used Applications, and it stores windows that you’ve minimized.

The first of these, storing icons for commonly used applications is typically what ends up taking up 80-90% of the Dock space. Your default Mac configuration will have the Finder, iTunes, iPhoto, iMail, iMovie, and so on and so forth. Probably a good 15 items to start with. Some of them you can’t ever really get rid of — The icon for the Finder is pretty much always going to be in the Dock, since the Dock shows running applications and the Finder is (almost) always running. If my own experience is any guide, a user’s Dock gets more and more cluttered as he accumulates more programs he needs to use.

The problem with this is that the Dock can only realistically accommodate so many icons. Probably about 50 along the vertical at the smallest icon size. 50 icons would be pretty acceptable, if the only icons shown were those in use. But the Dock isn’t designed to only show programs in use, it’s meant as a quick-access tool for starting programs, and it’s really easy to accumulate another 20-25 programs you use and turn the Dock from this snazzy-looking thing into a muddle of indistinguishable program icons.

Windows also has a tool for displaying programs for quick and easy access. It’s called the Start Menu, and it takes up about 1/10th the space the Dock does, and can display hundreds of items instead of fifty or so before becoming too cluttered to use. The Start menu utilizes this magical invention called a “Menu” that can pull out when in use and retract when not in use. It’s pretty cool. At one point, if you were really in the mood, you could do something like this with the Dock by making a folder and putting a bunch of program aliases in the folder, but Apple has apparently decided that using menus is verboten on a computer, and so now if you do this you will get, in essence, a much larger Dock pop-up over your whole screen. Wonderful.

The second thing the Dock is useful for is storing “hidden” windows and tracking what programs are open. The latter is a bit of a corollary to the first, since generally speaking, a program that’s open is also going to have a window open.

It’s been something like a decade since I used an OS9 computer, but I do recall that the Applications menu handled the tracking of open programs in a much more elegant and utilitarian way. While the Dock insists on displaying the icon of every program that is open, in a string along the Dock, OS9 had a single icon which represented the program that currently had window “focus,” which also served as a drop down menu for switching to other open applications. It’s too bad this feature seems to be gone, as it was space-conscious and faster than the Dock.

A new problem has also been introduced in the Leopard version of OSX…

Leopard Stars

Previous versions of OSX indicated “open” applications via a black arrow next to the application icon. Leopard has switched to a new icon which is best described as a “glowing orb of indistinguishableness.” As small a thing as it may be, it’s quite irritating that Apple has chosen [yet again] style over substance. Not only is the new “active application” icon (the circle) harder to see than the black arrows, but it’s easily confused for a background element, particularly when using the default desktop image of a nebula and stars.

As for Windows, it really isn’t that much better in this area. Windows does do a fair job of presenting most applications that are open to you up-front, but some applications, for unknown reasons, go in different parts of the Taskbar, and it seems quite random why some go in some places while others don’t. The inconsistency here is the main problem, as there’s no real visibility issues or excessive focus on visual flair over usability.

The feature that most distinguishes the Dock from the Taskbar is the handling of “hidden” (or otherwise) windows. You see, the Dock only stores hidden windows. The Taskbar will store windows, hidden (aka minimized) or not. This seems like a subtle distinction, but in practice it has major implications.

Lets assume one has two programs open. For example: Photoshop and Firefox. Both of these programs typically run in a full-size window or full-screen, so in a single-monitor setup you have to decide which program will be at the forefront at any one time. On a Mac, if you are working in Photoshop and want to switch to Firefox, you must make the Photoshop window smaller, move it out of the way, find the Firefox window, then click the Firefox window to bring it to the forefront. In Windows, if you are working in Photoshop and want to switch to Firefox, you must click the Firefox window in the Taskbar.

The difference being, because your Firefox window was “open” and not “hidden” the Dock did absolutely nothing for helping you to manage the open windows. In other words, unless you’re in the habit of minimizing every window you ever shift focus from, the Dock isn’t going to assist you. You must manually take charge in OSX by managing the size and placement of open windows. And this isn’t generally a huge hassle, but having to do it all is rather inconvenient when I shouldn’t have to.

Now, again, presumably the Expose feature added in some other version of OSX allows you to do this – But a keystroke is definitely not as intuitive as building it into the graphical user interface. That is what most Apple fans rave about, anyway, and here it is, doing something that’s critical to day-to-day usage less well than Windows.

I can always cross my fingers that Apple will consider trying to match Windows’ functionality in this area, but I’m skeptical that’s even possible using the Dock model. After all, the Dock’s ideal place is on the left side of the screen, which makes it a less-than-ideal place to display text. And even assuming Apple decided to make the commitment to improving their GUI by having the Dock hold all windows, hidden or not, you’d need identifiers to distinguish between open windows (aka “text”) quickly and easily. The Dock is really poor at displaying text, and since it’s such a space hog it’s icons, especially for windows, are frequently so tiny they’re indistinguishable.

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