Multitasking, windows, and the Mac

When I heard about Front and Center, my first thought was “Why would anyone want their windows to behave that way?” But I didn’t write a post about it right away, because maybe my snap judgment was wrong. I read the release articles by Lee Fyock and John Siracusa and the initial posts1 by John Gruber, Jason Snell, Stephen Hackett, Ryan Christoffel, and others. And then I spent the next week using my Macs and thinking more about how I use them. I came to the (admittedly self-serving) conclusion that my snap judgment was right: what Front and Center does is at odds with my view of multitasking and would be a hindrance to my use of the Mac.

Here’s what Front and Center does:

In “Classic” mode, clicking on a window brings all the windows in that app to the front, just like it did in classic Mac OS. In “Modern” mode, only the clicked window comes to the front. In either mode, Shift-click on a window to get the opposite of the chosen behavior.

In my everyday use of the Mac at work, I have several windows open at once, all of them showing different views of the project I’m working on. Typically I have two or more Preview windows, a couple of Finder windows, a Terminal window, one or more graphics editing windows2, and a small handful of BBEdit windows. And as I work, I usually have to refer to one or more documents3 while I’m creating or editing another. Which means I am continually switching between those documents.

The key here is that while I work I switch between different sources of information. On my computer, the information is contained in documents, the documents are displayed in windows, and the windows are “owned” by apps. In one sense, the apps are essential for accessing and creating the information, but in another sense they are incidental. While I work, I am not thinking “I need to activate Preview” or “I need to activate BBEdit,” I’m thinking “I need to see the basement floor plan” or “I need to add a paragraph about the basement layout to my report.” And, significantly, when I need to refer to that floor plan, I don’t want my report suddenly covered up by all the other drawings I have open in Preview.

To me, this is the essence of multitasking. I am not multitasking, the computer is. I am focused on one thing. It just so happens that that one thing requires documents from several apps and those documents are continually changing as the work progresses. For the computer to help me with my work, it must pretend to be as focused as I am, and that means being able to switch focus to the documents I need (and only the documents I need) when I need them.

All of this is a long way of saying that I see the the current Mac behavior as correct.

But what about the classic Mac behavior? I am, generally speaking, a big fan of the original Mac UI design team. They got so many things right the first time, and they tweaked most of the things that weren’t quite right within a few years. But the UI for multitasking, which was introduced with MultiFinder in System 5 in 1987, was not one of those things.

I don’t think this was the UI designers’ fault. When the Mac was introduced, it was a single-tasking system. To switch to a second application, you had to quit the one you were in and launch another. And even after the MultiFinder came along, the underlying operating system retained a lot of that original design. The main thing it retained was that the foreground application was in control. Background applications ran only when the foreground app ceded them a time slice. This was called cooperative multitasking, or as I like to call it, not really multitasking.

This under-the-hood prominence given to the foreground app in classic Mac OS made it natural4 for all the foreground app windows to be in front of all the windows of the other apps.

Part of the reason Apple bought NeXT in 1996 was to sweep away the cruft left over from the Mac’s original OS design and give it a real multitasking operating system. With that came the window-first UI that John Siracusa dislikes and that I find perfectly suited to the way I work and, fundamentally, correct.

Obviously, not everyone agrees. From John Gruber’s post:

I never liked Mac OS X’s change in this regard, but I haven’t used a third-party utility to restore the classic style in at least 10 years. But now that I have it back, I realize I’ve missed it. When you switch to an app via the Dock, all its windows come forward. When you switch to an app via ⌘-Tab, all its windows come forward. It feels right to me that when you switch to an app by clicking one of its visible background windows, the whole app comes forward.

I would argue that just because Gruber misses the old behavior doesn’t make it right. When you switch to an app via the Dock, all its windows come forward because you have clicked on an icon for the app. Similarly, when you switch to an app via ⌘-Tab, all its windows come forward because you have selected the icon for that app. But when you click on a background window, you are not selecting an app, you’re selecting a window. So it’s the window that should come forward, not the app as a whole.

The main reason you might think all of the windows associated with an app should also come forward when you click on one of them is because you got used to that behavior. It’s familiar, which is important, but not necessarily correct.

Of course, I was quite familiar with the classic Mac OS behavior, having bought my first Mac in 1985. Why am I not as fond of it as Siracusa and Gruber? I can think of a couple of reasons:

If you’re an app-centric sort of computer user, by all means get a copy of Front and Center, and do it before its price gets raised. But if you’re like me and think more in terms of documents and windows rather than apps, you might like Witch from Many Tricks. It lets you use ⌘-Tab (or another key combination—I use ⌃-Tab) to quickly switch between windows without bringing an entire app to the front.

  1. I’m not sure they’re detailed enough to call them “reviews.” Then again, Front and Center is a very focused app—there aren’t many details to discuss. 

  2. These used to be Acorn and OmniGraffle, but lately I’ve been using Graphic and Affinity Designer instead of OG. 

  3. I’m using “documents” in a broad sense here, including not only files that are on my computer, but also web pages and the ephemeral output of Terminal commands. 

  4. And maybe necessary. I’m not enough of a programmer to know if it was even possible for Apple to have allowed the foreground app to leave some of its windows behind those of other apps.