John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · Monday 5 January 2004
In Search of a Better Desktop
In the original days of the computer there was no desktop, only a command line. Nowadays even unix users have some kind of desktop interface. The desktop allows them to have several different application windows and may sport such features as taskbars, system trays and wallpaper. All very nice, but is it really functional? To me it seems like desktops have just been getting worse. Yesterday I bemoaned Suns weak-kneed and slapdash Java Desktop product that has just arrived

Microsoft does not seem to be innovating either. Even with billions of dollars at its disposal the best it can come up with over ten years of development is an application menu bar that is just a ripoff of a wingding that many companies were already making for Windows. Apple has been most creative with its bizarre fisheye app bars and experimentation with the traditional file navigator. Most of their changes seem to be stylistic, but at least Apple is making changes.

Newsflash: a reader (or perhaps more accurately 'the reader') has notified me that apropos of my last sentence with the latest OS X revision, Panther, Apple has released a desktop overlay called Expose (I refuse to type the accent mark over the e--I will leave that to the French) which has vast improvements over the usual Mac mess. You can tile and switch much more easily, but still no full screen.

One of the first desktop systems was a product called "Quarterdeck". Nowadays it is called "QEMM" and is owned by Symantec. It has a cousin called DESQview. Quarterdeck was the memory manager and DESQview was the task switcher. These powerful and innovative programs were very popular in their day. They essentially were an attempt to make up for the mind-numbing deficiencies in DOS. When Windows multi-tasking and memory management appeared they became irrelevant except for people in Third World countries still using DOS.

Task switching doesn't sound like much, but as far as I am concerned that is what the desktop should be. When an app runs it should get the whole screen. I thought in 1985 and I still think that Apple's idea of making a window smaller than the screen and of arbitrary size is absolutely inane. I mean what is the point? What is the user going to do, drag the corner of the window a little closer, then a little more, then a little more... the whole idea is retarded. Why should users ever have to resize an app window? It doesn't make sense. We should have each app occupy the full screen and use the keyboard to cycle through the apps. There should be a task key that brings up a full-screen (yes, that's right a full-screen, not toolbar) interface showing all the apps running and their characteristics and allow you to switch with the mouse by clicking one. The idea is so simple, and so functional but none of the operating systems use it.

About six years ago I bitched about this state of affairs to my boss, Wes Wikey, one day and he said, "Well, you know the program manager in Windows is interchangeable so you could just write your own if you want to." Stand back because I might just do that...

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