Mac OS X
The operating system that really popularised the dock is of course Mac OS X, and it really deserves its own header in an article on the history of the dock. Released in 2001, based on NeXTSTEP, the dock in OS X had grown up: it looked sassy, had flashy zooming effects, bouncing icons, and could be placed on three sides of the screen. Running applications were marked by a black triangle, and running applications that were not actually on the dock permanently were added on the right side of the dock. It also sported a trash can icon that doubled as an eject bucket (do you have a better name?) for mounted media.
Image taken from GUIdebook.
In the latest release of its Mac OS, Apple seriously reworked the Dock – to much dismay. Personally, I was one of the people squealing hell and moon about the semi-isometric-3Dish-weird-whatever-where-is-my-tea look, but in all honesty, I have to admit that now that I have been using the new dock for a few days, that semi-isometric-3Dish-weird-whatever-where-is-my-tea look is starting to grow on me. Just make sure that you make the dock much smaller than the default. Faults still remain though: the new indicator is hard to see on some backgrounds, and the surface is too much like a looking glass (get it?).
The new dock also has something called stacks, which vaguely resemble the drawers found in CDE and Xfce. You can drop a folder on a dock, and it magically turns into a stack: the contents in the folder can be shown in a sort of ‘fan’, or in a grid. All done in the usual Apple Way, of course.
The Mac OS X dock has singlehandedly popularised the dock concept, and brought it to the masses. Apple made it appealing to look at, a major sales point in Apple retailers – I clearly remember being intrigued by the zooming effect. Additionally, the OS X dock inspired many dock programs in Linux and Windows. However, the dock is not perfect.
The OS X dock has been criticised heavily during its lifetime. I will highlight only a few of the criticisms – the ones that I personally find interesting. Many of these things can be fixed by using 3rd party solutions.
First off, the dock has positioning issues. Since the dock expands and contracts both east and westwards, you are never quite sure where each individual icon is currently residing (spatial memory, anyone?). This problem can be resolved by some 3rd party hacks that allow you to place the dock in the bottom-left corner of the screen, eliminating the positioning problem as the dock then only expands eastwards.
Another constant area of criticism is the placement of the trash icon. Apple opted to place it in the dock, which is a really weird place to put it; not only because of the positioning issues, but also because the trash can is now quite hard to hit. Dragging things to the trash is problematic because the increased muscle tensions associated with dragging items already makes you much more inaccurate, and considering that, it would be very welcome for the trash icon to be in a screen corner. Again, there are 3rd party hacks to fix this issue.
Another major pain in the behind is that the dock does not carry permanent text labels, making identification of the items in the dock quite difficult. This is not so much a problem with the application launchers (they have distinctive icons), but more so with file or folder icons. They all look the same, and hence, identification is basically impossible without resorting to the mouse-over text labels – which can be hard to read on some background colours.
There are many more problems with the dock concept in OS X, but these are the major pains. Apple’s aversion against customisability (which stems from the days of the original Macintosh, see the last two paragraphs here) really does not help in this regard – many Mac users are forced to resort to 3rd party hacks, and the Leopard dock only made that worse.
The dock is one of the three ways to keep track of running applications. You have the dock concept, the taskbar idea used in Windows, KDE, and GNOME (among others), and lastly, a method that is barely used in these modern times (sadly), iconification (minimising a window turns it into a special desktop icon with a text label – you will hear more about this in the upcoming CDE story). The dock has proven itself to be a mainstay in the graphical user interface, and it has become the defining element of the Mac OS look and feel.
However, as is the case with all of the three ways of managing running applications, the concept is definitely not without its faults, and many people will not like OS X or similar dock-based interfaces for these very faults. There are, however, many ways to improve the dock experience, as shown by Xfce and the various 3rd party tools for OS X. This makes the dock quite expandable, but sadly, does not fix all of its faults.
I am not burning my fingers by promoting one of the three concepts, or advising you which one to use. All three concepts suck, and they are all more or less like driving a car with a blindfold on and without a steering wheel through Amsterdam during rush hour. You are bound to get scratches on your car. Just use whatever sucks the least for you.
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