WINDOWS 7 TASKBAR vs. OS X DOCK

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The Windows 7 taskbar has been reworked, perhaps not for the better. It will display icons for frequently used programs, with no particular attention paid to whether those programs are running or not. You’ll see hype about the convenience of the “jump list” that can be accessed for each icon – a menu for access to frequently used functions and information about any open windows for that program. The “jump list” is just a silly name for the menu that’s always been a right-click away, lightly enhanced to display a bit more information. Unfortunately, right-clicking still does not come intuitively to most people and I’m not sure this is going to change that.

Paul Thurrott complains here that the taskbar promises to make Windows 7 less intuitive and more confusing for most people. He points out the similarities to the “dock” in Mac OS X, which has some of the same shortcomings – it’s fine when you get used to it but many functions are not obvious for those getting started.

Another perspective comes from this in-depth analysis of the Windows 7 taskbar and the Mac OS X dock. There are some visual similarities but there’s more going on than slavish copying. The UIs in Windows PCs and Mac computers are built on different premises, with consequences for the way that programs are started and closed. The only problem is that trying to figure out the differences makes my head hurt. Here’s the heart of it:

“The fundamental distinction between OS X and Windows is that, in general, windows on Mac OS X represent documents; on Windows, they represent applications. This conceptual difference motivates many of the UI features of both OSes, and understanding it is key to understanding the two operating systems.

“In practice, the most obvious repercussion of this difference is that on Mac OS X, closing the last window of an application does not exit the application itself. After all, each window is merely a document, and just because there are no documents open does not mean that the application should close; perhaps the next action will be to create a new document or open an existing one. In Windows, on the other hand, closing the last window generally closes the application completely. Because the application is the window, closing the window naturally closes the application with it.”

The long article and many screenshots will give you an interesting history of the different ways that Windows programs have handled multiple windows over the years: the “multiple document interface,” where Word would display all the open documents in a single window; Internet Explorer’s tabs, allowing several separate IE windows, each with several open web pages; multiple windows collapsed to a single taskbar button to save space. It’s kind of a mess but the article also points out some of the ways that Mac window and application handling is also a mess.

The author’s point is that they are messes for very different reasons having to do with their underlying premises.

“Beyond that, though, the differences are there. The Taskbar is very much a window switcher, rather than an application switcher. While these were once almost synonymous on Windows, they’re now typically distinct operations. As a result, actions that are easy on the Dock—for example, switch to one application and bring all its windows to the front—and which were easy in the MDI apps of old, are absent from the Taskbar. On the other hand, window-oriented operations (such as “close”, “minimize”, etc.) are available on the Taskbar but have no place in the Dock.

“This distinction may appear slight—window, document, application, they’re all kind of the same thing as far as the UI is concerned—it makes the experience of using the two very different. The Dock is terrible at managing and quickly switching between dozens of windows; the Taskbar is still weak at switching between a bunch of applications. The superficial similarities are there, but the different paradigms cause significant practical differences. Moreover, the development of the Taskbar is very much a logical consequence of the progress that has been made since its introduction in 1995. The similarity between the Taskbar and the Dock is almost coincidental, so different are the two in use.”

That’s great but it still looks to me like Microsoft tried to copy the OS X dock, which isn’t all that great on a Mac and isn’t any better on a PC.

image While we wait for that, a tip for Windows XP and Vista users: right-click on your taskbar and unlock it, then drag the top border up so you can see two rows of buttons. Drag the borders of the quick launch bar and notification area by the clock to the left and right so buttons are stacked conveniently, then lock the taskbar again. You’ll wind up with more room to see the names of open programs and windows and the day and date in the lower right corner without sacrificing much screen space.