posted by Thom Holwerda on Sun 18th Nov 2007 15:46 UTC
IconThis is the sixth article in a series on common usability and graphical user interface related terms [part I | part II | part III | part IV | part V]. On the internet, and especially in forum discussions like we all have here on OSNews, it is almost certain that in any given discussion, someone will most likely bring up usability and GUI related terms - things like spatial memory, widgets, consistency, Fitts' Law, and more. The aim of this series is to explain these terms, learn something about their origins, and finally rate their importance in the field of usability and (graphical) user interface design. In part VI, we focus on the dock.

Even though many people will associate the dock firstly with Mac OS X (or, if you are a real geek, with NeXTSTEP), the concept of the dock is actually much older than that. In this installment of our usability terms series, I will detail the origins of the dock, from its first appearance all the way up to its contemporary incarnations; I will explain some of the criticisms modern-day docks are receiving, finishing it off with the usual conclusion.

Origins of the dock

As I already mentioned, many people assume that Mac OS X and its ancestor, NeXTSTEP, are the ones that first presented the idea of what we now know as a "dock". While these two certainly played a major (if not the only) role in the popularisation of the dock concept, the first appearance of what we would call a dock was made somewhere else completely - far away from Redwood City (NeXT) and Cupertino (Apple). It all started in a small shed in Cambridge, England.

Well, I am not sure if it actually started in a shed, but that is generally where cool and original stuff in England comes from (British independent car manufacturers, people!). Anyway, I am talking about Arthur, the direct precursor to RISC OS (so much even that the first actual RISC OS release had the version number "2.0"). Arthur, whose graphical user interface always reminds me of the first versions of the Amiga OS (the 'technicolour' and pixel use), was released in 1987, for the early Archimedes ARM-based machines from Acorn (the A300 and A400 series). It was actually quite a crude operating system, implemented quite quickly because it was only meant as a placeholder until the much more advanced version 2.0 (RISC OS 2.0) was ready (two years later).


That thing at the bottom of the screen is the Iconbar, the first appearance of a dock in the world of computing. The left side of the Iconbar is reserved for storage icons, and on this particular screenshot you can see a floppy disk; if you inserted a new drive into the Archimedes, the Iconbar would update itself automatically. Clicking on a drive icon would show a window with the drive's contents. The right side of the dock is reserved for applications and settings panels - here, you see the palette icon (which is used to control the interface colours), a notepad launcher, a diary launcher, the clock icon, a calculator, and the exit button.

Even though Wikipedia can be a good starting point for various computing related matters, the article entry on "Dock (computing)" is a bit, well, complete and utter rubbish; it claims that the dock in NeXTSTEP, released in 1989, was the first appearance of the dock concept (so not the Iconbar in Arthur). Further, Wikipedia claims that "a similar feature [to the NeXTSTEP/OS X dock], called the Icon Bar, has been a fundamental part of the RISC OS operating system and its predecessor Arthur since its inception, beginning in 1987, which pre-dated the NeXTSTEP dock (released in 1989). However, upon further examination the differences are quite noticeable. The Icon Bar holds icons which represent mounted their own context-sensitive menus and support drag and drop behaviour. Also, the Mac OS X Dock will scale down accordingly to accommodate expansion, whereas the Icon Bar will simply scroll. Lastly, the Icon Bar itself has a fixed size and position, which is across the bottom of the screen."

Those are minor differences of course - not differences that set the NeXTSTEP dock that much apart from the Iconbar. It is obvious to anyone that the first appearance of the dock concept was the Iconbar in Arthur. Now, this whole dock thing was of course another example of similar people coming up with similar solutions to similar problems in a similar timespan (I need a term for that) - but the fact remains that the first public appearance of the dock was the Iconbar in Arthur. Credit where it is due, please*.

* I do not edit Wikipedia articles. I do not think that "journalists" like myself should do that.

So, the Iconbar was the first dock - but the dock has changed a lot since then. Let me walk you through the various different docks since the concept was introduced. Firstly, NeXTSTEP 1.0 was released on September 18th, 1989, and it included the ancestor of Mac OS X's dock, positioned in the top-right corner of the screen. It introduced some new elements into the dock mix; applications that were not running showed an ellipsis in the bottom-left corner - contrary to what we see in docks today where usually applications that are running receive a marker. The dock in NeXTSTEP had its limitations in that it did not automatically resize when full, so you had to remove icons from the dock, or you had to put them in shelves. The NeXT dock remained fairly unchanged over its years (until Mac OS X, of course). The below image of the NeXTSTEP dock has been rotated 90 degrees for formatting issues. Clicking it will give you the proper orientation and size.

NeXTSTEP's dock.

Before NeXTSTEP 1.0 was released, Acorn updated its Arthur to RISC OS 2.0 (April 1989), which included the Iconbar we already knew, but in addition, it had context sensitive menus for the various icons in the Iconbar. The colour scheme was a bit less unnerving too. In future versions of the RISC OS, the Iconbar remained fairly similar, but of course did get visual treatments. See the below shots of RISC OS 2.0 and RISC OS 4.



Other operating systems also received a dock, such as Amiga OS 3.1, but the one I want to highlight here is the dock in CDE - the Common Desktop Environment. The dock in CDE (my favourite desktop environment of all times - despite its looks) was quite the functional beast. It had drawers that opened upwards (a different play on context menus), and in the middle, you had a big workplace switcher. The dock was fully configurable, and was quite easy to use. Keep the CDE screenshot below in mind, as I will dedicate an entire Usability Terms article solely to CDE running on Solaris 9. The CDE dock evolved onwards through Xfce, also seen below.



Table of contents
  1. Origins of the dock
  2. Mac OS X; Criticism
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