Monday, 3 May 2010

The Ambiguity of Hiding Windows

So, Ubuntu 10.04 LTS has been released and it is pretty damn awesome. Again I don't think it was entirely ready, I think more time could have been spent fixing video driver bugs because there are a lot of people complaining about hitting a "black screen" (see my brainstorm idea: ).

Anyway, one of the features of Lucid is the new indicator applet, designed to replace the notification area with a consistent interface. I love the indicator applet, except for one thing, this:

The indicator applet replaces the menu functionality for the icon brilliantly but it goes a little too far in replicating the functionality of the notification area. This is a long standing bug bear of mine. Many apps on Windows, and then consequently other desktops, allow minimizing an application to an icon. Why?

To clear the window off of the desktop? That's what minimize is for. "But.. but.. then it clutters my taskbar!" I hear you cry, and that my friends is the point, the minimize to icon functionality is  a workaround, a plaster over the fundamentally broken taskbar. The main problem with the current window switcher is the size of the elements. Even with a widescreen monitor you can fill it up pretty quick because window titles take up a lot of space. Application grouping helps to some extent but each element still takes up more room than the icon would do alone.

But that's not the only reason for the existence of "minimize to tray". When you are looking for a window in a list of windows, the less there are the easier it is. That's why you don't want Rhythmbox, or your IM contact list cluttering up the bottom. So the flaws with the window switcher are:

1. Each element takes up too much space
2. There are too many elements

You can also add:

3. You can't read the entire titles on the windows

We can easily solve these problems. Windows 7 had the right idea by replacing the window items with icons. We have a decent alternative on Ubuntu too, it's called DockbarX.

Don't believe me, try this. Add the DockbarX PPA and replace the window switcher applet with DockbarX. Now, make your Rhythmbox visible via the indicator applet and minimize it. Now go ahead and work with your computer. What do you notice? It takes up hardly any room AT ALL, in fact you won't even notice it's there because every time you go down to that Dockbar you'll be going there for an application window and finding the application is dead easy when its icon is right there and there is only one of them. Hover over the application icon and bingo, up pops the list of windows for that application with FULL TITLES.

Rhythmbox won't get in the way because you won't be drawn to it you are looking for a bright orange Firefox window for example. And you can open a shedload of windows and still have plenty of space in the taskbar. If you wanna skip a track, or see what's playing then you can do, using the indicator applet.

So, if there is one thing I would do if I was in charge of 10.10 it would be this: replace the window-switcher applet with DockbarX and remove any minimize to tray functionality from the indicator applets. It removes the ambiguity of "where did I minimize that window to" and it makes life much MUCH easier and consistent.

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