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This unexpected journey into the realm of transparent user interfaces has taken me much further than I ever imagined. It's been almost a year now since the first inkling of the idea rattled my brain, which led to the first release of Crystal Clear for ShapeShifter in mid-February.
Thanks to the Cocoa InputManager SetAlphaValue, I was led, Pied-Piper-like, into the enormous and strange world of Objective-C and Cocoa during the summer. I'm finally surfacing from that expedition and have brought a souvenir of my travels into the strange, terrifying, and glorious realm of Cocoa.
Each computer user will have to decide for themselves just how much transparency they can stand while working at their Mac. I was surprised at the amount of loathing that was expressed towards Leopard's newly translucent menubar last month. But I don't think it's indicative of any permanent flaw in the concept. Quite the contrary, in fact: If anything, Leopard's toying with translucency is too much of a baby step, on the one hand, and smacks of me-tooism with Vista, on the other.
Very briefly, the premise I'm proposing is that our computer monitors are essentially glorious light sources, much like the ones that shine through windows in our houses and automobiles. Just as we do with those windows, there are times when we want to bask in the beauty shining through, and other times that we prefer to close the blinds to avoid glare. On the computer, we already know how to close the blinds. I'm suggesting that there's a world of beauty awaiting computer users who can enjoy the light as well.
In Praise of Third-Party Mac OS X System Enhancements: Hats Off to Mighty APEs, Incredible InputManagers, and Satisfying SIMBLs!
I can’t believe it’s been 2 months since I published the preview article for Crystal Clear 1.5! What was going to be a 2-3 week project after that turned into a monster of a project that’s taken me on several journeys into the bowels of Mac OS X and Cocoa, the primary framework for building Mac OS X software in the programming language Objective-C. But the story of those journeys–if I ever have time to write them down–is an article unto itself.
Today, I just want to briefly report what’s going on with Crystal Clear. Besides the features noted in August, the screen movie above shows a variety of noteworthy advances, some obvious and some not so obvious. Here are the ones I want to point out in particular:
I’m releasing this in advance of Crystal Clear 1.5 since it’s ready to go and there may be one or two folks who are tired of dealing with the “roll your own” menubar from version 1.2, even though it did eliminate the ugly menu-extra smudgies of previous releases.
With Crystal Menubar, you just drag the application to your hard drive (the “Applications” folder, maybe?) and click it. This will put the nice, clear Crystal Menubar in its rightful place at the top of your screen. After that, you can just forget about it. Use whatever desktop picture that strikes your fancy!
If you decide to use it, just add it to your Login Items in System Preferences (the Accounts pane) so it gets launched when you log in.
I recently completed a review of all the currently available tools that add a class of functionality that I’m calling “window tricks” to your Mac. Such tools have existed for years, but last year saw some new tools in this category, as well as more visibility thanks to an increase in the number of new Mac users who’ve migrated from Microsoft Windows.
What these users are looking for typically is some freedom from the Mac OS X user interface constraints on how you can move and resize your application windows. As new Windows users discover, Apple’s user interface guidelines prescribe very specific parts of the window that can be used to move it (usually, just the toolbar and titlebar) or to resize it (just the lower right-hand corner of resizable windows).
Longtime Mac users (me included) generally agree that these guidelines are sensible and work well. Unlike MS Windows windows, Mac OS X windows typically don’t have “chrome” on their sides that can be used for grabbing, and that’s precisely where Windows users are accustomed to resizing and moving theirs about. Apps that do have “sides,” like the Finder, can indeed be dragged about from there. But they can only be resized from the lower right.
Even so, all Mac users have likely experienced an occasion where they’ve managed to drag a window to a location from which it can neither be resized nor moved. Don’t ask me how at the moment, but believe me, I’ve been there. There are also occasions when it would be more convenient to resize a window by its lower left corner rather than the lower right. It’s not hard to imagine what kind of configuration I’m talking about there. And in these circumstances, it’s no doubt crossed your mind that it would be sure nice to have some way to grab that freakin’ window and move it without having to do a major dance, reshuffling other components of your desktop in order to make that one simple change.
I’ve been intrigued by the concept of virtual desktops since encountering them in a Unix system many years ago (I think it was an SGI Irix system), and then later when I set up Linux about 5 years ago to play around with that OS firsthand. Then, a couple of years ago I saw an early build of Virtue Desktops and thought it was pretty cool. I really loved the nifty transition effects and all the desktop customization you can do with Virtue.
However, Virtue seemed pretty flaky at the time, so I looked around to see what other virtual desktop environments there were for Mac OS X. To my surprise, there were several in addition to Virtue… including some commercial implementations. After trying all the free ones (I wasn’t interested in paying for this feature, since I didn’t even know if I’d like it), I decided Virtue was the best of the bunch.
But I also decided that Virtue’s flakiness was simply adding more time to my routine rather than helping me organize my work, and I finally broke down and decided to try You Control Desktops. Now, it may be a total coincidence, but just after I installed Desktops and restarted my system, the whole OS began to flake out, and I ended up having to trash my hard drive.
Needless to say, whether that was You Desktops’ fault or just a bad hard drive kicking in, it soured me on the whole idea of virtual desktops for awhile.
Then, when Apple announced in August that one of the premier features of its forthcoming Leopard OS would be a virtual desktop system called Spaces, I thought that maybe someone would finally get this thing done right on Mac OS X. Maybe the problem has been that the implementations I’d tried just weren’t intuitive enough, or right-featured enough, to be useful to me. I even said this out loud in an article of video snippets from the WWDC keynote that I published in mid-August.
Apple’s initiative with Spaces also made me question my previous conclusion that virtual desktops were not worth the effort. If Apple is investing the energy to bring virtual desktops to “the rest of us” someone at Apple must believe that they are a user interface enhancement that will really benefit “us.”
So, I opened my mind once again to the idea of virtual desktops. As a member of the select Apple developer group, I’ve been getting the Leopard “seeds” as they’re released, and I’ve taken the opportunity to try out Spaces along with other new features of Leopard. Given my nondisclosure agreement with Apple, I’m not going to say anything about Spaces that isn’t revealed in Apple’s own presentation of it on the Leopard website. Instead, I’m going to spend a few minutes sharing my impressions of virtual desktops in general and of four other specific VD applications that are already available for Mac OS X:
At the outset, I’ll confess that my note-taking for this exercise wasn’t as rigorous as usual… I didn’t test for the same set of features in each application. Unfortunately, I can’t go back now and refresh my memory for the commercial products, because their demo licenses have expired. The reason for my relatively sloppy approach probably reflects my renewed conviction, after thoroughly testing Spaces, that for most computer users, virtual desktops are a waste of time and effort. Simply put, they’re an idea whose time has passed.
That’s a pretty harsh judgment, I realize, and one likely to make a good number of fellow geeks stop reading right here. After all, some users of virtual desktops feel strongly that they are highly valuable and necessary—for them. And I suspect that’s true. Given the probability for misunderstanding when expressing an opinion on a topic like this, I want to begin by exploring why virtual desktops arose in the first place and what benefits users get (or believe they get) from them. I also want to explore the expectations users have of virtual desktops like Spaces, in the very likely event that they’ve never actually used such a system themselves.