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ATPM 3.05
May 1997




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The Personal Computing Paradigm

by Michael Tsai,

Tuning Mac OS for the Future—Part 2

Last month, I shared some thoughts about how the Mac OS could be improved. I focused on problems that arose through the course of Mac OS’s evolution. In this column, I’ll discuss ways to improve certain parts of Mac OS that have been around since System 6 and MultiFinder. This duo was probably the most important Mac OS enhancement ever because it gave us the ability to run more than one application at a time. Unfortunately, it’s not as efficient or powerful as it could be.

Application Switching: Keyboard

These days almost everyone runs multiple applications at the same time on their Mac. The maximum number of open applications is limited only to the amount of installed RAM. Products like Virtual Memory and RAMDoubler have made even this limit less strict. I often run six or seven different applications at once for the same project. Even though I’m using lots of RAMDoubled RAM (which is a bit slower than the real thing), it’s still a great timesaver.

The Application menu on the far right of the menu bar is a simple and intuitive way of switching between applications. I think it’s very good, especially for new users, because it displays all open programs and indicates which one is currently active. However, the frequency with which people switch between applications has increased, and increasing monitor dimensions have made the Application menu seem “out of the way.” As a result, the Application menu seems to be less and less efficient solution. There must be a quicker way.

One solution is to use keyboard shortcuts to switch between applications. After all, the Application menu is about the only menu which does not have keyboard shortcuts. The Apple menu doesn’t either, but it isn’t used as much and is closer to where the pointer usually is, anyway.

A universal “Next Application” key command would be a quick and easy way to toggle through applications and is not complicated for new users. Key commands that work well for me are command-tab for the “Next Application” and command-shift-tab for the “Previous Application.” Control-tab and control-shift-tab also work nicely and don’t interfere with existing application shortcuts as much.

There are numerous ways to implement this feature now, using macro programs such as QuicKeys or KeyQuencer. There is ProgramSwitcher, an excellent shareware program, which offers these features and more. An added bonus is that the destination application’s icon and name flashes in the middle of the screen — a very convienent indicator. However, I’d like to see a similar feature built into a future version of Mac OS. If Apple decides to implement this feature, it would need a way to inform users that it exists. In the spirit of Mac computing, time-savers like this should either be self-evident or easily discovered through experimentation. One way of doing this would be to add “Next App” and “Previous App” commands to the existing Application menu, alongside their command key equivalents.

Application Switching: Mouse

Another way to speed up application switching is to have a list of icons (or names) of active programs so the user could simply click on the desired application to switch to it. The advantage of this solution is speed. When more than four or five applications are open, it can take a while to “cycle through” them with keyboard shortcuts. Also, like the current Application menu, it allows the user to see exactly which applications are open at a given time.

One idea is to add icons for each open application to the menubar, giving the active one a bold outline similar to how default printers are handled with QuickDraw GX. Although this approach appeals to me personally, I reject it because it breaks the consistency of having all things in the menubar be menus and severely complicates things for new users.

A different possibility would be for Mac OS 8's context-sensitive pop-up menu (which appears when the user control-clicks) to double as an application switcher. It could include the items “Next Application” and “Previous Application” commands along with a submenu listing currently open applications. The advantage to this approach is that it’s more intuitive to have the “Next Application” and “Previous Application” commands available wherever you are and less confusing than placing them in the normal Application menu. The shareware program PowerMenu implements a similar type of context-sensitive menu. It feels like a very natural way of switching applications.

Another idea would be to have an on-screen palette of active applications. Switching could be accomplished simply by clicking on the desired item in the list. The disadvantages to this approach are that it uses valuable screen space, isn’t terribly useful when only one or two applications are open, clutters the screen, and adds unnecessary complexity for new users.

I conclude that a palette should be incorporated into the Mac OS, but should be visible only when the user wants it. One way would be to “tear” it off from the Application menu, making it a palette that floats above other windows (like AppleGuide prompters). Clicking on its “close box” would get rid of it; clicking on its window-shade widget would collapse it. The “tearing-off” would work similarly to the way palettes tear off in existing applications, like HyperCard and Canvas.

While we’re talking about an application palette, another good enhancement would be to make it serve as a drag-and-drop dock. If the menu is made into a palette, the user could drag documents onto an application icon to have that application open the document. In this respect, it would behave much like a Finder window.

Visual Cues

Since it’s easy enough to switch between applications, what is needed now is a good signal for showing the user that the active application has changed. New users are often confused because isn’t easy to tell when you change applications. Innocently clicking on a window can cause the active application to change. A few seconds later, when the user tries to select something from a menu, he notices that the menu he was looking for no longer exists and can’t figure out why. The problem is that the user expects to perform a conscious action to switch applications. What we need is a better way to alert the user that they have changed applications, one that doesn’t get in the way of more experienced users.

Microsoft does a decent job of solving this problem with Windows 95's TaskBar. It functions like the palette described above and also displays a large (pushed) button for the active application. However, there are two reasons why this wouldn’t work on Mac OS. First, it is too confusing to users that applications and Finder (Program Manager) windows both appear in the TaskBar. Second, Mac OS 8 already uses the bottom of the screen for holding folder tabs.

Currently, the menu bar simply draws the new active application’s menus and substitutes its icon in the Application menu. The problem (or advantage, depending on your point of view) is that the change is very subtle. If the user isn’t looking at the menu bar, it’s easy to miss. One solution is to animate the updating of the menu bar. After all, there’s plenty of processing power available today. I’m not sure which is the best choice, but some possibilities would be:

  1. The new menu bar slides from left to right pushing the old menu bar out of the way. Imagine the stock ticker on CNBC. This would be nice because the name of the application being switched to could be inserted between the old and new menu bars and would be the first new text to slide across the screen.
  2. The new and old menu bars look like they’re on a roller, and the new one slides down over the old one. Imagine how one digit replaces the other on an odometer. This would be especially intuitive if the next and previous keys are implemented.
  3. The old menu bar fades out while the new one fades in. This would look spiffy, but I’m leaning against it because this kind of effect is already so over-used in presentations.

Of course, for those users who don’t want to see these effects (because they can be a little distracting) there should be an Appearance option for turning them off.

Next Time

Next month, barring any time-senstive announcements that need to be commented on, I’ll conclude this three-part discussion of Mac OS with a discussion of windows, documents, and clippings. I look forward to hearing your comments.

[apple graphic] ”The Personal Computing Paradigm” is © 1997 by Michael Tsai,

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