A shortcut extravaganza

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

When the Mac OS X Dock came out, it was regarded by many in the community as a strange beast. Many users, fearing it, tried to kill it by using various means (from hidden preferences to forced rm commands). Luckily for its life, the Dock quickly showed what it was truly capable of: part launcher, part status bar, part shortcut manager, the Dock is as weird as it is pure genius. It was very different, yes, but it quickly showed how shortcuts like the good old System 7 Launcher were a thing of the past and how adaptive interfaces were bound to reign in the new Mac world.

Then, developers, for various reasons, were told that the Dock was, after all, not all it was set to be. There were new, improved error dialogs for most messages, bezel interfaces for unobtrusive communication, redesigned menu- bar items for quick access. What about animated, meaningful in-Dock icons — such as the Mail.app one? By moving the battery indicator from its original Dock location to a menu item, Apple also indicated animated icons were to be used carefully, if at all.

The result is that our beloved Dock is, more than ever, close to the System 7 Launcher, only cuter-looking — despite holding an increasing amount of tricks under its sleeve, which should have the person (persons?) in charge of the Dock in Cupertino given some kind of award.

Am I blaming Apple for changing the orientation of the Dock? Absolutely not, it would be silly. Am I criticizing developers for not making use of all the Dock features? Neither — developers, after all, have to follow the trends of the platform.

Looking at my Mac right now, I have about 6 obvious shortcut locations:

  1. The Dock
  2. The Finder’s sidebar
  3. The Finder’s buttons bar
  4. My “Recent Applications/Documents/Servers” menu items
  5. The various menu bar extras installed by applications and services
  6. The Spotlight menu, to some extent

Now, is that specific to the Mac? Windows has the task bar, system trays, shortcuts galore on the desktop and in the explorers as well, not to mention the Start menu. Most popular Linux and UNIX desktops mimmic that behavior — although, there, it is generally possible to turn some of them off while Windows has a tendency to force them on you.

It appears that the number of shortcuts we use is dangerously nearing the number of actual files or functions on our computers. And I’m only talking about shortcuts to find files and folders here, not shortcuts such as keyboard commands, macro systems and other time-saving features.

To me, this seems to indicate that interfaces have become a tad too complex — even the iPod interface has shortcuts now! — as devices have evolved. To some degree, of course, the new capabilities of our operating systems need to be reflected in the interface — or there would be no way to introduce the new features. Unfortunately, by piling up alternative means to access what is in place, we are re-creating a second interface, with different rules than the first — one-click instead of double-clicks, poofs instead of using the Trash…

Isn’t that, to some extent, a recipe for disaster, down the road? I honestly don’t know but I fear that, by trying to make something useful right in the second, we end up preventing a logical learning path that would be more beneficial in gaining understanding of how a device actually works and is organized. (As an example, think how many users discovering Windows cannot find an application once the Desktop shortcut has been removed and rush to install it again.)

What are your feelings about this sanity-threatening question?


2005-08-22 04:17:54
I hardly ever use the Dock.

What with having a copy of LaunchBar, I just don't have much need to wander that far down the screen anymore...

2005-08-23 19:47:55
you forgot to mention the Favorites folder.
yes, that's often accessed from the shortcuts in the left side of Finder windows, but it really is a separate place for shortcuts.