More thoughts about Mac usability: Dock versus Taskbar

So far, my experience with the Mac has been quite nice. However, I
continue to struggle with the lack of keyboard shortcuts and keyboard
customizability. I also am trying to get my head around the Dock (Mac)
versus Taskbar (Windows), and Apple-Tab (CTRL-Tab for windows)
switching between windows/applications.

Ok, so there's a HUGE difference between PC and Mac which takes a
while to sink in: the Mac Dock (and the accompanying keyboard
shortcuts) are designed to switch between applications. The Windows
Taskbar (which is actually a persistant Explorer.exe process) is
designed to switch between windows.

Unlike Windows Vista which seems to want to do away with menus
entirely (which is a bad idea), the Mac puts menus front and center.
In fact, menus are such a strong inter-application convention that the
menu bar on the Mac is always on top and is always in the same place
and follows the current application. This is rather odd for a Windows
user, who is used to each application maintaining it's own title and
menu bar. It turns out in the Mac that the menu bar is often the best
place to quickly check which application you're in - this is opposed
to Windows where each Window identifies itself. A subtle issue arises
on a Mac when looking at an open, but inactive window - how do you
figure out what it is? You can go off of clues based on it's content,
however that's a relatively time consuming task.

Which menu and title management system is better? I'd have to give the
edge to Windows here, because the eye has to travel less distance in
Windows to identify the application. Also, the mouse and eye travels
less to activate and peruse menus. The pity is that the OSX method
saves no real-estate - Mac apps still require title and menu
equivalents: Mail, for example, has a title (the subject of your
message) and a command bar (which has menu-like qualities).

Windows has a slight edge, too, in that you can install an OSX
Dock-like utility if that's what you like. I'm not familiar with a
Taskbar addition for OSX. It's only a slight edge because I've found
those kinds of utilities to be either unstable, or more likely, not
terribly well integrated into the OS. Whether or not the Dock is the
perfect way to manage many running applications, it is implemented
well and is very consistent with the rest of OSX.

I'm also rather surprised that OSX doesn't have a feature that's been
available in Windows for a very long time, which is document preview
when alt-tabbing (it's available for XP as a TweakUI addon, and
natively in Vista). This is especially surprising since OSX features
document preview in the Dock!

Closely related to these issues is the matter of long-running
applications and their representation. In Windows, such applications
are conventionally given an icon next to the "clock", which is called
the "system tray"), and do not have any window associated, and do not
appear during an alt-tab switch. On the Mac, such applications (like
Skype, iChat, Mail, Cisco's VPN client) appear in the Dock as any
other application, and also appear in the Apple-Tab list. I believe
that Windows has a clear advantage here, even if it means making an
arbitrary distinction between "Background" and "Foreground"

One final way in which I feel the Dock is inferior to the Taskbar is
the lack of minimize/maximize repeatability. On the Mac, windows can
be minimized to the Dock (by default with the "Genie" animation). They
can be restored by clicking on them. But when restored, a Mac window
has no representation on the dock, unlike in Windows. So if I want to
maximize a window, take a look, then minimize it again, I have to
click the title bar, click the dock, then click the title bar again -
my mouse has to move. In Windows, I can click on the Taskbar
representation to achieve the same affect. Basically, the Taskbar
maintains a representation for all windows, whereas the Dock maintains
representations for only minimized windows. The Dock gives me no easy
way to "peak" at a non-visible window.

I think that the Dock could be improved in a few simple ways. The
easiest would be to designate a section of it for "background"
applications - this would have the effect of taking many apps out of
apple-tab switch order, and perhaps also making them less prominent on
the dock. (What's wierd is that there already is a section of the
screen like that, on the upper right, however this is mostly for OSX
usage, but certain apps like Skype and Adium use it too). But the key
weakness to the Dock, lack of per-window access and control, is tied
up with the universal menu bar, and the lack of per-window application
identification. That would need to change for a solid Taskbar
implementation on the Mac, and I suspect (but don't know) that this
assumption is baked into every Mac application at a very deep level.
That said, it might be enough just to enumerate open windows and forgo
per-window identification - even that would be useful.

The bottom line is that while I can live with the Dock (and I'll try
to post workarounds as I find them), I much prefer the Taskbar. I'm
kind of interested in seeing how hard it would be to write one. (It's
kind of interesting that there are so many 3rd party apps for
launching applications on OSX, like Butler and Quicksilver, but none
for managing already opened apps.)

[Update: there is another work-around for the per-Window control
problem: ensure that your applications only have one window! Terminal
with it's tabs, Firefox with it's Tabs, Photoshop and it's MDI
interface all do the trick.]

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