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For Software Addicts: Yes!MaybeNah!
Mars Report:

The Ultimate Solution To Window Clutter:
You Can Call Me SAM

Published March 27th, 2010

Or, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Single Application Mode But Didn't Know Who To Ask

Update 4/15/10:

One flaw in Single Application Mode (SAM), alluded to but not sufficiently stressed in the article, is its impact on the Mac OS X application switcher (accessed with the keyboard shortcut Cmd-Tab), which is a function of the Dock. When SAM is running (regardless of which software you're using to run SAM), the switcher doesn't automatically toggle to the previously selected application when activated. Instead, it typically defaults to the current app. So if you want to repeatedly toggle between the front two applications, SAM is troublesome.

The solution for me has been to substitute LiteSwitch for the built-in application switcher. With LiteSwitch (which has its own SAM implementation), this problem disappears, and you get a much more powerful app switcher to boot. However, LiteSwitch isn't freeware (I think it's $15). I haven't found a freeware solution, but will keep looking. Perhaps I'll figure out how to build it myself! Stay tuned.

I've observed that one of the most intractable problems bedeviling computer users, which makers of operating system software never seem to solve, is that of "Window Clutter." The inability to …

  • Stay focused on the window you're working in, while
  • Keep auxiliary windows handy and visible when needed,
  • Avoid confusing any of these windows with those of other running applications, and
  • Maintain some reasonable level of aesthetic quality to your computer desktop.

… is a nettle that keeps on pricking. At least, judging from continued user grumbling about it and the continued, less-than-satisfactory, though often valiant, solutions that user-interface experts keep offering users as the final salvation from this longstanding hindrance to productivity, I conclude that the nettle is alive and well.

That Window Clutter should still be a topic of conversation among engineers at Apple (I don't think Microsoft has any high-level staff who really care about or understand the issues surrounding interface usability, and Linux developers don't have the time to do so) is testament to their failure to stamp out a problem that appears from Mars to have a fairly simple solution, namely:

  • Make it so that only one application's windows are visible at any one time.

Being highly curious creatures, we Martians find it hard to resist interrupting our work to find out more about something unknown, like the peculiar way humans endow the use of words like "nettle," "wazoo," and so on, with meanings they didn't originally have. Fortunately, doing such a trivial thing on the Mac is so simple it's hardly an interruption. As I wrote at length in an article some years ago, all you need do is right-click on the word that interests you, select "Look Up In Dictionary" from the context menu, and Boom! You've got your definition without having to leave your document. The magical thing is that this works in any application on the Mac that's built with Apple's Cocoa frameworks (which is just about everything nowadays).

Affectionately referred to as Single Application Mode, or SAM, this is the default desktop environment on Mars. It's also widespread on Earth, though its human adherents often practice SAM quietly or even in secret because it's not an official, supported Mac OS X desktop environment.

Still, we find SAM the best way of dealing with today's large monitors, huge RAM capacity, and equally huge software options—all of which spell Window Clutter at a scale never before experienced.

SAM does require some adaptation and adoption of new tools and techniques, which I'll go into in more detail later in the article. If you're interested in SAM but afraid it would be too disruptive to your work habits, let me remind you that one of the proudest characteristics of homo sapiens is your ability to quickly adapt to changes in your environment.

On Mars, we learned to love SAM when using DragThing a few of years ago… We noticed that DragThing offered the option to hide other apps when switching to a new one. Further, it allows you to specify certain apps that you don't want to hide when you switch to other particular ones. After adopting Quicksilver, I discovered that it offered the same option, but without any customization. After that, I started noticing the Single Application Mode option offered in a surprising number of applications. (You can find a large list of such apps later in the article.)

So, if you're not satisfied with Apple's previous attempts to diminish Window Clutter on your Mac (Expose, Spaces, and Visual Differentiation), and if you abhor the idea prevalent among Windows users that one should simply zoom every window to the full size of your display, this article intends to share with you Everything You Always Wanted To Know About SAM (But Didn't Know It Was A Topic).

There's a lot to cover here, so I'll give you just a few hints up front that you should remember even if you don't read the whole tome. By the end of the lesson, you should at least know the meaning of the following terms, and how to use the software they refer to on your Mac:

  • Single Application Mode, and how it differs from Single Window Mode.
  • Application Switcher, referring to the one built in to Mac OS X.
  • Running Dockless, meaning an application that runs without a Dock icon and without a main menu, but which is able to spawn its own windows of various types. The term also covers Dockless applications that run inside other apps.
  • Tear-Off Menus, a technology that dates back to the NeXTSTEP operating system, the foundation on which Mac OS X was built.

This article is presented in several sections. Here's a list of the sections so you can easily jump around to one of the topics that particularly interests you.

  1. How Bad Is Window Clutter, Anyway?
  2. "Tradition Myths" About SAM
  3. From Apple's Archives: Single Window Mode and the Dock
  4. Getting Started With SAM
  5. Window Clutter: A Little History
  6. Alternatives To SAM For Slaying Window Clutter
  7. Glossary of SAM Speak

How Bad Is Window Clutter, Anyway?

The problem of window proliferation today is not so much a factor of the number of windows you have open in a particular app, but rather how many apps you have open. Figure the average user has five or six apps open, each with one or two windows. You can easily end up with 10-15 windows vying for your attention on the screen, and even with monitor resolutions of 1920x1200 or higher, that's a lot of f*cking windows!

By using SAM to limit the number of visible applications to one, you can immediately reduce the number of onscreen windows by a factor of n, where n is the number of running applications that have open windows.

To demonstrate this mathematically (we love algebra on Mars!), consider the Mac OS X computing environment of a typical professional user these days. In this scenario, our user is running the following apps, each with its own set of windows and auxiliary panels (names shown are just typical examples):

ApplicationWindowsPanelsPersistent Windows
Finder 4
(or more)
0 4
Mail 2 2
(Activity panel, Preferences)
iTunes 1 0 1
iChat 1 3
(Video preview, buddy lists, etc)
Safari 1 1
Preview 1 1
iPhoto 1 2
(Effects, Adjust)
Pages 1 3
(Colors, Fonts, Inspector)
Third-Party App One (DevonThink Pro) 2 1
Third-Party App Two (Amadeus Pro) 2 3
(Playback, Markers, Actions)
System Preferences 1 0 1
What about Dockless Applications?

Note that the calculation of Window Clutter doesn't include any number of other applications that run only from the global Menubar (or Statusbar), and which don't have a main menu of their own. This doesn't stop them from wanting to take up screen real estate, however. Typical applications in this category include:

  • menuCalendarClock iCal (may have one persistent window)
  • Quicksilver (pops up when summoned)
  • CoverSutra (may show current playing tune and/or a tune controller)
  • Edgies (may want to keep one of these stickies-like items onscreen)
  • A system monitor of some kind (for example, I always keep MemoryStick onscreen)
  • Helpful edge-tab tools (e.g., DragThing, Fresh, DevonThink Pro, Yojimbo, the Dock)

We also won't include the multitude of tiny windows called "desktop icons" (yes, they are windows) that users typically keep visible. (Can you feel me shuddering from way down there?) Remind me to share the secret of eliminating that source of Window Clutter as well.

There is another class of applications (of which we dare not speak!) which have no user interface of their own, per se, but rather live inside the interface of other apps. I use some of these religiously, and they all require screen real estate even though they aren't really "there:"

  • StepMenus. An invaluable open-source app that provides a movable, "tear-off" copy of an app's main menu.
  • CrystalClear Interface. Also invaluable to me—but hey, as the developer I guess I'm biased—as a way of making Mac OS X even more beautiful and functional than it already is.
  • SafariStand. This free add-on to Safari has more useful features than you can shake a fistful of Martian sand at. (I devoted a whole article to SafariStand some years back.) This app has several useful panels that I may have open from time to time.
  • Visor. A SIMBL plugin that enhances the interface to Apple's Terminal utility.

Now, into our equation we must figure that some auxiliary panels hide themselves when the application to which they belong isn't active. For example, color and font panels are only visible when the app that spawned them is active, or "in front." On the other hand, the very useful "Special Characters" panel persists across apps. (However, most folks don't know that if you click its Maximize button, you actually minimize the panel to a tiny square.) Apple is pretty careful about following its own user interface standards and makes sure that all "Inspector" windows (including the Effects, Image Adjust, and Media Browser panels that typically accompany the iLife apps) only show up when their particular application is active.

Even in Apple's apps, however, exceptions do arise. In Safari, the Downloads panel is visible even when Safari isn't active. In Mail, the Activity panel likewise stays visible. And in virtually all apps, any preferences panels you may have opened stay visible even if they have no relevance to the application you're working in.

So, back to our equation.

    Let n = Number of open applications
    Let v = Average number of visible windows per app

    Let w = Number of visible auxiliary windows in active app
    Let x = Number of persistent windows
    Let y = Number of persistent auxiliary panels
    Let z = Total number of visible windows

    Given these variables,

      z = (x1xn) + w
      v = z/n

    For the hypothetical desktop listed previously, this yields:

      z = 23 + w
      v = (23 + w) / 11

    If we let w = 1, then

      v = 24/11 = 2.2

By this calculation, then, in all likelihood there will be 24 visible windows on your desktop under the usual setup. And if you eliminated all but the active application's windows, the total would fall to between 2 and 3 windows.

A dramatic end, indeed, to the problem of Window Clutter… wouldn't you say?

Now, to graphically answer the question posed by this section, let's take a moment to visualize the above scenario. The screenshots below have the same application/window configuration, based on the preceding table: 11 applications running, together generating 24 visible windows. The first image is a default Snow Leopard desktop, without Single Application Mode. The second image has CrystalClear Interface 2.5 running, but with SAM turned off. The last image shows the dramatic difference when SAM is activated.

Default Snow Leopard Desktop (No SAM)
Default Snow Leopard Desktop (No SAM)
Snow Leopard Using CCI 2.5 (No SAM)
Snow Leopard Using CCI 2.5 (No SAM)
Snow Leopard Using CCI 2.5 with SAM
Snow Leopard Using CCI 2.5 with SAM
"Tradition Myths" About SAM

Despite its demonstrable power in dealing with Window Clutter, Single Application Mode is embraced by only a relatively few "power users" and, of course, by Martians everywhere—those of us who live among you as well as those on Mars. However, Martians have no real influence on the way humans interact with their computers, and in fact we have some difficulty articulating our ideas in a way humans refer to as "evangelizing." Therefore, despite its rational foundation, SAM continues to be shunned as a solution by Apple and by influential Mac pundits… Why?

There are several reasons, all of which are based in "tradition myth," and none of which outweigh the true virtues of SAM.

  • I need to be able to see windows of other applications so I can drag text from one to the other. No, you don't. Using Apple's Application Switcher (invoked by ⌘-Tab), it's a simple matter to select text in one application and drag it to a given window in another. Simply:
    1. Select your text.
    2. ⌘-Tab. While holding ⌘-Tab, select the application you want to drop the text in, using either your mouse or moving the cursor with an arrow key.
    3. Release -Tab and drop the text where you want it in the other application.
      Alternatively, of course, you can copy and paste rather than drag.
  • I need to be able to drag images or files from one application to another. This is a variation of the first myth and has the same solution.
  • I need to be able to see values (numbers, text, colors, images) in two applications at the same time. This is not a myth but is a real need that any solution to Window Clutter must address. Fortunately, virtually all SAM implementations make this relatively simple.
    • The base solution is to hold the Shift key while selecting a second (or third, etc) application from the Dock. Just hold the Shift key each time you need to switch from one application to the other while working.
    • Better solutions let you define which applications you never want to have hidden while using SAM or, better still (but requiring more configuration), define groups of applications that should remain visible together. Several applications that implement SAM offer this functionality.
  • Why bother when I can just use the "Hide Others" keyboard shortcut (Option-⌘-H) as needed? Well, my response is that if you want to use the keyboard shortcut each time you switch apps, then you should be using SAM. SAM is mainly a convenience, automating the task hiding other apps rather than adding the task to your regular workload.

Finally, the most insidious deterrent to the use of SAM is one that arises from ignorance or from age-old blinders that keep their wearers from seeing full 360-degree panoramas about the issue. To explain what I mean by this, I need to take a quick detour into some history about a relative of SAM's called "Single Window Mode."

From Apple's Archives:
Single Window Mode and the Dock
One of the Dock's Hidden Tricks

It's strange, but true, that the Mac OS X Dock has a "single application" mode of its own. To try it out, install Secrets, a GUI tool from Blacktree—the company that brought us the incredible open-source workhorse, Quicksilver. Secrets lets you enable the hidden Dock setting for "Single App Mode." You can also activate this Dock setting by typing these two commands in the Terminal (the second command restarts the Dock): single-app
killall dock

That the Dock has an implementation of SAM is curious, and it may be useful for some. However, it has several drawbacks from the Martian point of view:

  1. You have to use the Dock alone (read: click on Dock icons) to launch and switch apps, in order to make other apps hide when you do.
  2. Launching apps from Spotlight doesn't trigger SAM.
  3. Launching apps from the Finder—or from any other application launcher—won't trigger SAM.
  4. Switching apps using the Application Switcher doesn't do it, either.
  5. Curiously, you don't go into SAM mode even if you launch an app from a Dock Stack, such as one showing recently launched apps.

So, the Dock version of SAM is only useful if you use the Dock for all app launching and switching, which obviously isn't practical or efficient.

In the Beginning… Single Window Mode

Purple buttons for Single Window ModeAnother tantalizing remnant of Apple's flirtation with SAM is found in the graphics bundle that's been used by Mac OS X since day one. In addition to the usual red/yellow/green "stoplight" indicators at the top of every window, there's a purple one that's never been seen outside the few developers who worked on the earliest builds of Mac OS X… plus all those who saw Steve Jobs' Keynote presentation at MacWorld in January 2000, when Apple first unveiled its new Aqua interface.

For those of us who are fans of SAM, it's validating to listen to Steve extol the virtues of what was then dubbed "Single Window Mode." In fact, he spoke of it at length in a demo that concluded his entire presentation about the coming greatness of Aqua. During that speech, Jobs describes a solution Apple was building into Aqua in order to conquer the challenge of Window Clutter (see video of this segment below):

Let me go ahead and click a button that's on the right side of the top of the window pane. And this button is pretty cool. What it does is it says, "You know, when we have a lot of windows around on our system, it can get rather confusing for beginners, and even for pros.

If you're working back and forth between Illustrator and Photoshop or Photoshop and something else … These things can get very complicated on the screen.

What could we do to make life easier for our pro customers and for beginners? We came up with something pretty neat. You can click it from any window. You can turn it off and on.

And it's called Single Window Mode. So you just click this, and every other window on the screen is miniaturized. And when I click another window… Boom! They switch places.

It's very easy.

Wow… even from Mars we were impressed with Jobs' insight. Here's a guy who really understands user interfaces to software. He understands the needs of computer users, often even before they do. We had observed Steve Jobs and his return in 1997 to the promising company he helped found, and it was clear that this guy knows what he's talking about when he says things like, "Boom!"


What the heck is a wazoo? And what do people mean when declaring something is "out the wazoo?"

Hmmm… Does "wazoo" really mean "anus"? Now we're really confused! To clarify, I click on the little "More" button in the lower right-hand corner of the pop-up, and I'm whisked to the Dictionary app itself, which explains:

Sure enough, our early impressions of Jobs were correct, and he's clearly not only a transplanted Martian, but that extraordinary Martian who is able to mind-meld successfully with humans. Since then, we've been importing Apple products "out the wazoo," as you say here on Earth.

Sadly, however, Apple didn't pursue this initial idea for a Single Window Mode. From the snapshot we were given, it appears that SWM was somewhat flawed, and I'm not referring to its unfortunate acronym. If SWM worked the way Jobs demoed it, it would have minimized all the other windows in the current application, as well as those in other applications. Clearly, that's not going to work, which may be why Jobs was talked out of it.

As one of the major gurus of Mac-Think, John Gruber gave us a clear explanation for the opposition to SWM in those early days of Mac OS X. This excerpt is from an interview by Marcin Wicary, keeper of the marvelous website covering the history of computer GUIs, Guidebook Gallery, in July-August 2005:

Q: Was single-window mode such a bad idea? Moved from the purple button to the confines of System Preferences, wouldn’t it be useful for beginners or refugees from the Windows world?

A: It might be a good idea for some entirely new system, but I think it was incompatible with the existing Mac UI paradigm. The Mac UI was, and is, meant to revolve around multiple windows. If you’re only going to show one window at a time, what’s the use of even calling it a “window”? Just take up the whole screen.

TiVo, for example, effectively is a computer with a single-window UI paradigm. But it’s screen-based, not window-based. In the same way that it didn’t make sense for Apple to add a single-window mode to Mac OS X, it wouldn’t make sense for TiVo to add a new multiple-windows mode.

As for beginners and Windows refugees, I don’t think they need protection or shielding from the true Mac UI. What would – and does – help them is when the regular UI is consistent, obvious, and intuitive.

My current theory is that this antipathy for SWM has swallowed any official support SAM might have had all these years. And yet, SAM is the solution that SWM was not.

  • SAM is SWM evolved.
Getting Started With SAM

But perhaps the best reason SAM isn't more widely adopted is that, especially for experienced Mac users, it takes some getting used to. This is why I refer to it in the CrystalClear Interface Preferences as a "new paradigm." The rewards of embracing SAM are great, but embracing SAM also means unlearning certain behaviors, and learning new ones. If SAM were openly incorporated into Mac OS X, its adoption could be more seamless than it is, of course.

So, OK, say I want to try using SAM. Where do I start?

Step One: Select Your SAM Sidekick

Despite its relative obscurity, SAM is implemented as an option in a great many Mac OS X applications that have some application-switching functionality. Here are some of the apps I know of that offer SAM as an option. I've personally used Quicksilver, LiteSwitch, and DragThing for this functionality and ultimately settled on LiteSwitch as the best option.

I chose LiteSwitch not just for its SAM-ability, but for its many other irreplaceable virtues. I now use CrystalClear Interface for SAM, but I cherish LiteSwitch because it improves on the Mac OS X switcher in so many ways. Of particular relevance to SAM is LiteSwitch's inherent app-switching behavior.

Apple's switcher doesn't allow you to repeatedly and quickly toggle two applications with one simple ⌘-Tab shortcut. After you toggle once, it forces you to navigate (with arrow key or mouse) to the other application you want to toggle.

For me, this is key, since without the quick toggle, I end up doubling the toggling effort. LiteSwitch doesn't have this drawback, and I would be hard-pressed to do without it. (By all means take a look at the more in-depth review of LiteSwitch I wrote a few years back.)

I am pleased to see that Proteron, the company that built LiteSwitch, appears to be back in business after a 2-year hiatus. What a relief to know that it'll be available and supported once again!

Here's that list of SAM-capable apps I mentioned earlier:

Step Two: Adopt Some New Tactics
  1. Make the Mac OS X Application Switcher your best friend. Once this mode of switching apps is second nature, SAM will also seem completely natural (if it doesn't at first), and you'll wonder why you suffered so long with all those windows cluttering up your screen! To invoke the Application Switcher, use the keyboard shortcut ⌘-Tab to show all your running applications. As an alternative to Expose, you might also find it convenient to start using ⌘-Tilde, which toggles through the various open windows in your current application.
  2. Hold the Shift key to add windows of other applications to the visible mix. For me, this requirement pops up when I use an application like the delightful color utility iPalette, and want to capture colors from another window and experiment with them while keeping the source window in view.
  3. Get used to the idea that drag and drop is just as easy between two windows that can't see each other as it is between two that can (setting aside for a moment the notion that windows can "see"). Think of this technique as an analogue to the Finder's spring-loaded folders, where you drag a file from one visible folder to another that only becomes visible after you've passed through one or more folder "dimensions."

    Only, dragging from window to window is easier. To do this, just make your selection and start to drag. Then, switch applications using the Application Switcher (⌘-Tab) and drop the item into your document as you normally would. You can use this technique for dragging text, files, images, etc., just as you would if the two windows were visible at the same time.

    One thing that's even nicer about this approach is that you don't have to move windows around to set up the right view for dragging between visible windows. (What a drag that can be! "Oh, Martha, he thinks he's such a wit, don't he?") However, you do have to make sure that the target window is active in the the target application, since you won't be able to switch windows in the target app during the drag.
Step Three: Add Software To Overcome Certain Niggling Problems

As those of you who've tried to get used to Spaces know, many attempts to solve Window Clutter create new problems rather than really solving the old ones. This isn't true of SAM, because it really does solve the problem of Window Clutter. However, it does introduce some problems that need to be solved somehow. Fortunately, we Martians have found free and easy solutions to all of them!

Problem 1.
Many applications let you set a given window as "floating" so that it stays "on top" of your window hierarchy even when you switch to another application. Only problem is, the window's "floatiness" is tied to the visible window hierarchy itself rather than to your workspace as a whole. As a result, the supposedly "floating" window gets hidden along with its application when you switch apps using SAM.

Typically, this problem occurs with respect to user interface elements that you want to remain visible no matter what other apps are active. Apps in this category typically include:

  • Launchers
  • Sticky notes
  • To-Do lists
  • Monitoring tools (e.g., clocks, system info)
  • Interfaces with inactive apps
  • iTunes controllers
  • Screen capture tools
  • Automation tools (scripts/shortcuts/workflows)
  • Desktop customizers

These kinds of apps play a role similar to the one that the Color and Font panels play in an application. If you open them, you want them to stay open—and not to hide behind other windows or apps—while you're working. In the context of SAM, tools of the categories above are ones you want to remain visible even if you switch to another app.

Apple provides many such interfaces to its own applications, including the following:

What about iTunes?

Yeah, well, if you rely on iTunes' floating controller, and aren't willing to part with it, SAM won't work for you. Thankfully, there are dozens of free alternatives that provide more functionality than the iTunes floater, so if you're willing to give one of them a try, you can still use iTunes to the full extent, but control playback with something else. For some ideas, refer to an article I wrote a couple of years back on iTunes controllers. It's out of date now, but still worth a look. Some newer alternatives are listed in the table below.

Solution: Find applications that allow themselves to be removed from the dock and to appear without a Main Menu. Such apps are referred to in the Apple developer documentation as "agent" applications, and many of them make themselves available as a statusbar item. There are quite a few apps that can morph from a regular app to an agent as a user option, and many that are agents from the get-go. Here are some of the apps I've used that I always want to remain visible while open, and which can accommodate that need nicely with SAM without any special effort. (I've organized these according to the category of apps listed above.)

Note: The apps with links in the table are ones that are not linked elsewhere in the article. Other than that, I'm not making any kind of particular statement about them. :-)

Category Application
Launchers Quicksilver
Sticky notes Sticky Notes
Monitoring tools Growl
iStat Menus
To-do lists MenuCalendarClock iCal
Pluto Menubar
Persistent interfaces to inactive apps DevonThink Pro
iTunes controllers CoverSutra
YouControl Tunes
Screen capture Little Snapper
Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts
Automation tools Quicksilver
Desktop Customization Picture Switcher

Problem 2.
What about applications that don't offer an option to run outside the Dock and without a menubar? I have several such apps that I run daily or frequently, and SAM really wouldn't be feasible if I hadn't found an easy way to "bend such apps to my will," so to speak. Here are some of my "problem," essential apps:
  1. QuartzClocks. A freeware app, this is simply the best desktop clock I've ever seen. Sadly, its developer had abandoned it the last time I looked, but you can still download it from MacUpdate.
  2. MemoryStick. Even though I also use iStat Menus, this freeware app is an even better way to keep on top of your Mac's memory usage.
  3. Sticky Notes. There are oodles of sticky-note apps in the Mac universe, but this is one of my favorites. The feature that makes Sticky Notes stand out from the crowd is that you can bind individual notes to particular applications. This is exactly what I want from a notes application… it's like putting a sticky right on the app itself! It's also perfect for SAM, because the notes are always there when the relevant app is open. The only problem arises for notes that aren't tied to a particular app…
  4. FlySketch. The very best app for annotating screen captures. Incredibly innovative… there's nothing like it.
  5. PixelStick. Great freeware for measuring screen coordinates when doing pixel-based design.
  6. iPalette. Terrific freeware for experimenting with colors. For developers, it's a great way to easily get RGB values for NSColor in your apps.

Solution: What you need is an easy way to toggle any app on your system between being a regular Dock/Menubar app and being an "agent" app that doesn't hide when you're using SAM. If you're a programmer or are otherwise technically savvy about the inner workings of Mac OS X, you could do this manually by editing a small file that appears in every Cocoa app's "bundle." But how much fun would that be? Although there aren't many utilities that will perform this feat automatically, there are a couple I know of, both free.

  • Dockless does precisely what you want. Dockless is reliable, simple, robust, free, and open-source! (Another cool thing about Dockless is that it also lets you go the other way: Make normally "dockless" (agent) apps appear with a menubar and Dock icon.) (For more words from me about Dockless, refer to my 2006 review.)
  • Configure Application Dock Tile has a trés ungainly name, but it can be more useful than Dockless for quick changes. The best way to use this app is to add it to the toolbar of Finder or Path Finder, and then use it as a "droplet." To toggle an app between having a menubar/dock and not having one, just drag the app to the toolbar icon for Configure Application Dock Tile (yuck!), change the checkbox state and save.
Problem 3.
If you use Dockless or Configure App… to eliminate an app's menubar, how do you gain access to the menubar when you need to? After all, most such apps have Preferences to set, or Help to access, or various functions that only appear in their menubar. Apps that offer a built-in Dockless mode take this into consideration and make their menu functions available in other ways, but apps that are coerced into running Dockless don't.

Solution: As with problem #2, there aren't many options that address this. But fortunately, the one I've used for ages still works great on Snow Leopard and, like Dockless, is free and open-source: StepMenus. By default, StepMenus provides a small floating panel that duplicates an app's main menu. You can position this menu panel wherever you like, or you can use the StepMenus System Preferences interface to exclude it from running in a particular application. (If you're a user of CrystalClear Interface, you'll undoubtedly see a similarity between the StepMenus preferences pane and the one for CCI. The similarity isn't accidental: I used some of the StepMenus code for CCI, since it was precisely what I needed for that app.)

Window Clutter: A Brief History

In the beginning, there was the very low resolution monitor for working with graphical operating systems, like the Mac and, eventually, Windows. For a very long time (in computer years), resolution was so low (600x800 pixels or less) that the only sensible way of working was to zoom each window to its maximum extent.

This hardly hindered one's productivity, of course, because it wasn't until the mid-1990s that computers had enough built-in memory to run multiple applications reliably. Still, you quite often needed to have two or more windows open in a given application—for example, in word-processing apps like Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. The number of windows you needed to work with doubled or tripled once sophisticated design applications like Photoshop and PageMaker came on the scene. At this point, working with multiple zoomed windows became a real pain, yet squeezing them to smaller sizes seemed to only make things worse.

For the longest time, it seems that a great deal of my time was spent repositioning windows so I could see what I was doing. Working in a word processor was one thing. Working in Aldus PageMaker was another thing entirely.

In a word processor, it's often desirable to see only one window at a time, as a way of reducing distractions. In fact, a few years ago it became de rigeur (at least in the Mac world) for such apps to enable a full-screen mode for composing text. This became a major selling point for rich-text editors like WriteRoom, and it soon became a standard feature of most apps that included a writing function.

When one is word-processing, having a single window consuming all of your screen real estate is not a bad thing, especially since you can specify margins so the text doesn't spread across the entire area.

As screen resolution rapidly rose through the 1990s, however, the habit of zooming every window to the full size of your monitor began to look pretty silly, and could actually dampen productivity. It's a known fact that humans read less efficiently when a column of text is too wide, because the eye has trouble making its way back to the left-hand margin while keeping each line in sequence. (For examples, see this or this in Google Books.)

When monitor resolution was 640x480, this was not a consideration. But on a 1024x768 monitor, line length in a word processor (or PDF file, web browser, or whatever you may be trying to read) becomes far too great to read efficiently. Still, zooming windows to the max remained the preferred, and expected behavior (especially on Windows)… readability be damned!

Application Switcher

The first great idea for dealing with multiple applications and windows on a PC actually appeared first in Microsoft Windows 3.x. It was then (and, I think, still is now) a feature known and used mainly by power users, but it was a brilliantly simple implementation. I refer here to the Alt-Tab keyboard shortcut, which displays a horizontal band of all your currently active apps and windows. The Windows implementation was fairly rudimentary, and it didn't change much (if at all) until the release of Windows Vista. To navigate the Windows switcher, you had to to everything with those two keys. In other words, you had to hold down the Alt key, press Tab, and then keep pressing Tab to navigate through the items (you could go backwards by throwing a Shift into the mix, but still had to keep holding Alt as well). This was useful, but seemed downright awkward after Apple finally implemented a similar feature in Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther).

Apple's innovations to the application switcher were not only visual (and it was very cool visually), but greatly enhanced functionality as well. You could navigate like in the Windows switcher, but you could also navigate using the arrow keys, select with the mouse, use the scrollwheel to navigate, drag items onto the applications to launch them, and hit Q to quit an application. There are a variety of other keyboard shortcuts as well. (See here.)

I understand that in Windows Vista, Microsoft has incorporated some of Apple's enhancements: You can now navigate through the items with arrow keys or your mouse. Unfortunately, from what I've read, the Windows switcher doesn't expand horizontally beyond its size in earlier versions of Windows; rather, it expands vertically in rows.

One of the most irritating aspects of the Windows switcher is that it displays both documents and applications. Therefore, it's not strictly speaking an application switcher, and there doesn't seem to be any way of making it so. (This is the main reason I can't bring myself to use Witch, an otherwise useful, once-free-but-now-shareware switcher alternative on the Mac. Witch has no way to limit its display to applications, either.)

Instead of displaying both windows and applications at the same time, Apple has sensibly separated the two, providing a different shortcut—⌘-Tilde—to navigate your open windows.

It wasn't long before monitors got bigger not only in resolution but also in physical dimensions. Can you imagine working on a 15-inch monitor nowadays? And yet, this was the standard size throughout the 1990s (unless you were very special indeed). With such a small monitor, most people didn't max out their screen resolution because at 1024x768, for example, screen type becomes way too small to read.

Soon enough, though, monitor size zoomed to 17-inch, then 20-inch, and now 24-inch as the expected standard for your basic computer system. Heck, the current model iMacs sport a 27-inch monitor in the top two configurations. (And here I thought my 23-inch Cinema Display of a few years back was so huge. And it is!)

For creative professionals, the problem of dealing with Window Clutter has long been handled by using multiple monitors. That's fine if you can afford it, but using multiple monitors introduces its own set of problems. I won't go into them now, but those of you who work that way know them all too well.

In the meantime, computer memory soared, so that what application developers, users, and hardware makers considered a baseline standard was an ever-shifting target. And no one ever seemed to get it quite right. Technical standards have simply moved far more swiftly than humans could adapt to them. (I wryly note that this deficiency is not shared by your Martian neighbors.)

It's sobering to actually review the timeline of the amount of random-access memory (RAM) that personal computers have relied on. As we all know, in 1984, Apple Computer introduced the Macintosh—the first commercially available personal computer with a graphical operating system. It was also the first computer to boast 128KB of RAM! By the end of the year, for only $10,000, you could buy AT&T's new microcomputer and luxuriate in a full 512KB of RAM.

The race for more memory had begun, but it seemed to remain in Lilliputian dimensions for a very long time. By the end of 1989, Apple's Macintosh was still in the lead, with its top-end system boasting 4MB of RAM. IBM and Compaq PCs maxed out at 2MB. A decade later, top-of-the-line systems still peaked at 512MB or 1GB of RAM, while consumer systems like the iMac were holding 256-512MB.

Since 2000, It was in the last decade that RAM size really took off. The amount of RAM a desktop computer can consume nowadays seems ridiculously huge, a reflection of the transition to 64-bit operating systems. My 2-year-old Mac Pro can hold 32GB, and I've got 16GB installed. To buy a consumer system with less than 4GB these days is to buy a computer that won't run modern operating systems or the latest versions of the most apps. Heck, the $599 Mac mini has 2GB, and the $799 model has 4GB! The standard RAM for Microsoft Windows-based systems is similar, starting at 2GB for entry-level computers and rising from there.

For the purposes of this article, the main impact of exploding system memory has been to increase the number of applications one can keep open at the same time. It has become habitual for a typical user to leave applications open indefinitely, and then to not understand why their system may be slowing down after a few days. :-) (For a followup to this discussion, refer to the earlier section of this article, How Bad Is Window Clutter, Anyway?)

Alternatives For Slaying Window Clutter

I still think Expose is a visually cool way to view your open windows, but I frankly have never used it much because it just doesn't work for me. Rather than spending many more words explaining Expose, take a look at the preceding link and let Apple do the talking.

Basically, Expose has three modes, with the following default keyboard shortcuts:

  1. F9. This displays all the windows of all active applications on your system. Curiously, however, this doesn't show windows of applications that are hidden. Therefore, if you're using SAM, there is no difference between F9 and F10. (Perhaps that's one reason I've never taken to Expose…)
  2. F10. This displays all the windows of your current application.
  3. F11. This hides all windows and displays your desktop.

A very useful feature of Expose (which may not be widely known) is that whether you start with F9 or F10, you can navigate through your other applications and their windows by hitting the Tab key. Each click of Tab takes you to the next application set. Within an application set, you can navigate using the mouse or the arrow keys.

Still, Expose is at best a useful way of finding windows on your Mac, and is neither a practical application switcher nor a solution to Window Clutter. After all, as soon as you exit Expose, your cluttered Desktop returns, like Cinderella at midnight, to its former unlovely self.

Virtual Desktops (Spaces)

Back in 2006, I opined at great length about why Virtual Desktops as a technique--and why Spaces in particular--are poorly suited as a solution to Window Clutter. Rather than repeat all those arguments and observations here, I invite you to read the article, "Leopard’s Spaces: Virtual Desktops for the Rest of Us?", which I wrote while having access to developer releases of Mac OS X 10.5.

Even after I discovered Hyperspaces, a marvelous enhancement to Spaces that adds all the features I felt were missing in Apple's implementation, the basic problems inherent in Virtual Desktops remain:

  • They simply create more confusion than they eliminate,
  • They make it harder for you to find your application windows, and
  • They aren't really practical since the idea of segregating your different kinds of work into different desktops is impossible if you have even modestly complex kinds of work involving more than one application.
Visual Differentiation

Apple has progressively enhanced the visual distinction between your active window (typically the one you're typing in or whose controls you're manipulating) and the others in your active application. Windows in inactive applications have a slightly different appearance than inactive windows in your active application. (Say that twice fast.) But practically speaking, it's impossible to tell them apart.

This is why those who don't use SAM either must use something like Expose or ⌘-Tilde, or forever find themselves activating the wrong window.

Even when using SAM (either with or without CrystalClear Interface), distinguishing between your top-level window and the others in your window hierarchy is very important. By default, Apple helps differentiate the active window by adding an extra-huge, 3-D shadow (introduced in Leopard), as well as hints in the button widgets (color vs. no color, or faded vs. active appearance, or bright vs. dim, etc.).

In addition to Apple's visual techniques, CrystalClear Interface lets you further distinguish windows by their transparency, which is completely user-customizable. By default, the front window is mostly opaque, and the inactive windows are 50-60 percent transparent. Utility windows (Find panels, Color panels, and the like) retain the opaque appearance of the main window and are distinctively themed as translucent black (HUD) panels. Besides setting default values for all inactive windows, users can also set the transparency of individual windows that have unique titles to some custom value, retained across sessions.

In addition, CCI provides the option of turning shadows off for your inactive windows. This just takes Apple's approach one step further: Rather than minimized shadows in background windows, you can remove shadows from background windows entirely.

The bottom line is that Visual Differentiation as a strategy of solving Window Clutter is absolutely necessary and quite helpful. However, it is not sufficient to eliminate the problem entirely.

And that explains why here on Mars, we use Single Application Mode as the solution to Window Clutter.

Glossary of SAM Speak
An application that does not show a dock icon or have a Main Menu in the menubar. This type of application sometimes has an icon for accessing its functions and preferences in the Statusbar.
An application that runs as an Agent.
The part of the System Menubar that extends from the Spotlight icon on the right to a point on the left that's not occupied by the current application's Main Menu.
System Menubar
The narrow strip at the top of the Mac workspace that contains the application's Main Menu and the Statusbar.
Main Menu
The part of the System Menubar occupied by the current application's menu items. The Main Menu usually starts with an item with the application's name, just to the right of the Apple Menu, and extends to an item named "Help" on the right.
Acronym for Single Application Mode.
Tear-Off Menu
An item from the Main Menu, or one of its submenus, that can be "torn off" and positioned as a free-floating window.
Auxiliar Panel
A window that contains tools used to change settings of various kinds in the main window. Such windows include the Font and Color panels, as well as Inspector panels such as those in Apple's iWork applications, or the ones in Preview and QuickTime.
Floating panel
A window that by default always appears above other windows in the application's hierarchy, except those that are also floating panels.
Single Application Mode
A Macintosh workspace configured so that only one applications windows are visible at any one time. Other application's windows can be configured to be temporarily visible as well. Any open windows of Agent applications also remain visible.
Single Window Mode
A Macintosh workspace configured so that only one window is visible at any one time. SWM exists in concept only.
Active [Window/Application]
The Active application is the one the user is currently working in. The Active window is the window of the Active application the user is currently working in, using either the mouse or the keyboard (or some other input device).
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