Jon Aquino's Mental Garden

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Friday, October 09, 2009

The sad state of window management in today's operating systems

Window management hasn't changed much since the Xerox PARC days. They are still these overlapping rectangles that hide other rectangles. I currently have 19 windows open, and only 3 are visible (full screen on 3 monitors). I cannot tell at a glance which monitors the other 16 are on.

Surely there must be a better way to manage all of these applications—all of these contexts—that are open on one’s computer screen. Surely some clear-thinking soul has thought up a second way to manage this plethora of rectangles—some way that is easy and natural, that doesn't involve hiding windows behind others, losing your focus and context in the process.


Meanwhile, I am fighting the problem of multiple window contexts with a variety of approaches:

  • Desktop Sidebar. This sidebar keeps the time, mini calendar, system statistics, a mini web-browser, and (most importantly) a mini notepad always in view.

  • mIRC. This IRC client has a text-to-speech feature that lets me hear what people are saying, even if the window is hidden behind other windows. This saves a bunch of real estate.

  • Executor. This command line pops up with a hotkey, and lets me launch predefined shortcuts (with parameters) for web pages and applications. SlickRun is similar, albeit no longer developed.

  • MaxiVista. This lets me use a spare computer as a third monitor. It doesn’t solve the root problem, but it alleviates it a bit.

  • Alt-Tab Powertoy. A slightly better Alt-Tab. In addition to showing you a bunch of icons to choose from, it shows a thumbnail of the window for the selected icon. Not sure if this helps much.

  • iswitchw. This tool lets you switch to an open window by typing a few letters in the window title. For example, to get to my Putty window, I do Alt+w put. Saves one’s mental health.

  • A script for moving the active window from one monitor to another when I press both mouse buttons. I use this a lot.

  • VirtuaWin. A virtual desktop. Having too many virtual desktops confuses me, so I just have two: my main one, and an alternate universe that I switch to when someone interrupts me with a question and I don’t want to mess up my window arrangement.

It’s an ugly set of interactions, but it helps. Sorta.

Many of us live in our computers, so there must surely be a connection between a chaotic ecosystem of windows in which one cannot find the window one needs, and one’s mental health.

So for the health of our world,

for the sanity of humanity,

someone please give us a better way to do window management.


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