I’ve made no secret of the fact that I really love Windows 7. I’ve almost always been a Microsoft fan; they’ve always just given me the cleanest, most intuitive interfaces out there that show me the information that I need, without compromise. Sure I could get more functionality out of Linux if I cared to dive in deep into the command line, or I could get things more simple with OSX if I wanted to. But I don’t. I like Windows. I like a lot of information on my screen at once, and having it only a glance away.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

It all really comes down to The Taskbar. This mighty bar of information has been a part of Windows since the 95 days, and it is the key visual difference between Windows and OSX to the regular user. I have equally not made a secret of the fact that I detest the OSX dock. This is the OSX dock (photo is taken from flickr; even though I have a macbook pro now, I only run Windows 7 on it and I don’t want to restart it into OSX mode just to take an original screenshot). I purposely chose a flickr photo with the dock turned to left-side, for reasons you’ll see a few paragraphs down.

Click to go to original flickr page with large sizes

Click to go to original flickr page with large sizes

What makes the dock so distasteful? It doesn’t tell me anything about a program except that it’s open. Let’s say that you’ve selected System Preferences in OSX (in that screenshot, system preferences is the 4th icon from the bottom). The icon there in the dock doesn’t change when the shortcut is clicked. It just sits there, with a bland glowing dot to its left (you can see that with the Finder window, the first icon on top), and if you start working on something else and came back to System Preferences later, you’ll need to manually click that stupid icon again and check the contents of the particular window to see what it is you had opened up. So, you have to move the mouse back to that icon, click the icon, and then wait for the screen to redraw the window. Arguably no more than 2-3 seconds – but it adds up. Mac users have to do this dozens or hundreds of times a day. That comes to minutes per day, hours per month of just time spent fighting your computer for information. The Windows taskbar, however, does not fight you. It passively and constantly displays exactly what you have open and tells you the name of the window is for that program.

Now that I have an Apple computer, when I first got it I made a conscious effort to try to stay in OSX and use it. I made a serious attempt to be an OSX user. The paragraph above describes the sole reason why I no longer bother. I even tried writing in on a few Mac-users forums to see if there was a way to add an informational taskbar to OSX. I asked very politely, but the replies were “why would you want that; that’s like Windows” and even “just get used to the OSX way of doing things.” I never went back. OSX is simply a waste of my time.

See there in that first screenshot of the Windows 7 taskbar? In a fraction of a second glance, I can see that I have Ars Technica open in a Firefox window, Pandora open in Chrome, and three system management windows open – Services, Device Manager, and Disk Management. If I know I don’t want one open, I can then choose to move my mouse, right click on it and click close. I don’t even need to look at that window again; it doesn’t redraw itself if I only right click on it. Information management, accomplished, with minimal mouse/keyboard movement.

However, Microsoft is moving backwards. What you saw above is a customized Windows 7 taskbar (as those of you who already use Windows 7 probably guessed). Microsoft no longer shows you this sort of wonderful taskbar by default. No, the Windows 7 taskbar by default looks like this.

Win7-big

Click to enlarge

Yes…looks kind of familiar, doesn’t it? A big, bulky taskbar that takes up more of your screen real estate vs the classic, thin variety. Large, gaudy icons that have no text on them. I took these two screenshots mere seconds apart; those are the exact same programs and windows open here as in the first picture above. But where is the information? Why, Microsoft, am I forced to look at an OSX dock when I first install Windows 7? I can see I have Chrome, Firefox, and three other weird nameless windows open (and without text, I certainly have no idea what they could be; they’re generic system management windows with no brand recognition like Chrome and Firefox).

As an I.T. admin, I work with middle-aged professors that probably started with DOS and Unix when they first began doing statistical calculations, then moved to XP, and then moved to Windows 7 when we told them their new computer was capable of it. Without fail, I always tell every single user – as they stare blankly at the oversized, pictograph taskbar on their new Windows 7 desktop – “don’t worry; if you’d like, I can change it back to the way that Windows XP arranged the taskbar.” With two exceptions out of dozens, every person has been grateful to me for showing them how to do this, and several have asked me to write it down so that they can do it to their own personal Windows 7 computers.

Right click your taskbar, select properties. Change these settings. Fixed!

Right click the taskbar, click properties. Change to these settings. Fixed!

The new Windows 7 default taskbar has the exact same problem as OSX’s dock. It causes you to do more work, more mouse movement, more thinking, to merely see what’s open or running on your computer. Over the past few years, there has apparently been an outcry for “simplified” computing. Graphical User Interface (GUI) designers have responded in a lazy fashion – merely subtract information from the screen, and voila, your experience is simplified. But is it? Users of desktop and laptop computers still compute the same way. Most regular users have at least 3-4 programs open at once, and power users like myself might have 15 to 20 open. You can’t “simplify” away the fact that we need to be able to quickly navigate and filter that information, and pictures/icons simply cannot communicate details as effectively as text.

“A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words” is true if you want to pass on the information of a painting, a movie, or a vista (pun intended). But when you’re an office worker with 4 open Word documents, 3 open emails-in-progress, a web browser, and possibly a chat program (for business or pleasure) open, seeing 4 identical Word icons, 3 identical email icons, and then two other icons for your browser and chat, is not useful simplification. Microsoft, you’ve forced that user to move the mouse over and click each icon individually to see which document is which. At least Microsoft’s implementation is better than the OSX dock, because moving your mouse over each icon in Windows will then show a popup (with text, fortunately!) of open windows/tabs/sub folders for that program, and right-clicking even gives you access to special commands and functions (called Jumplists). Here’s an example of Internet Explorer 10, with six tabs open, spread between two windows, while using the informationless-taskbar. Although better than OSX, this still requires moving your mouse over from whatever you were doing before and hovering it over the IE button to see what windows/tabs are open.

From the Customer Preview of Windows 8. Note that in order to see these 6 tabs (in 2 windows) you need to have the cursor hovering pointlessly over the IE icon.

None of this is new information, though. OSX has been out for a decade and Windows 7 for about two years. I’d long since come to terms with what I thought was a mere fad of hiding information from users by the two mainstream operating systems.

What pushed me to write this blog entry was the fact that now, even the stalwart, information-packed consumer Linux is losing control of its information management capabilities. The newest version of Ubuntu now comes with its taskbars turned off and a new, Ubuntu-made custom GUI called “Unity” turned on. Here’s a screenshot taken from Ars Technica’s review of Ubuntu 11.04. Not to sound like a broken record, but does that look familiar to you?

Click to enlarge

Ubuntu's Unity: Click to enlarge

Of course it does. It’s the Mac user interface all over again, and a bottom taskbar that has been an everpresent part of Ubuntu and other Linux GUIs like GNOME and KDE is now gone. The top taskbar that you can see in that screenshot that merely says “Firefox Web Browser” can no longer be edited with Unity to add customizable widgets and information panels like with GNOME 2.0. The worst thing is that this massive user interface change is now the default.

Speaking of GNOME – a separate team of Linux programmers and developers who have been developing the default interface for Ubuntu and other Linux version for years – last month, GNOME version 3.0 was just released. Ars Technica’s article on it is filled with commentary on how closely it resembles a certain other operating system. Once again – here’s a screenshot of it! Does this look familiar to you!?!?

Click to enlarge (and weep)

GNOME version 3.0: Click to enlarge (and weep)

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are witnessing the death of the taskbar and the rise of the i-Interface. The rise of OSX’s marketshare has caused not only Microsoft to reel back with fright (expected) and duplicate the useless dock, but in a completely unexpected twist, even Linux – two separate developer groups, for that matter! – have released new versions of GUIs that look identical to OSX with the left-mounted dock turned on. GUIs based on textual information are dying out. The success of OSX has apparently whipped GUI programmers into a fear that users no longer want information, they want pretty pictures; and actual convenience be damned. I place the blame squarely on the OSX dock for Microsoft’s parody (yet with thankful improvements, as mentioned) in the Win7 taskbar and even worse, for the utter maiming of the most popular consumer version of Linux, and separately, the most popular standalone GUI for numerous versions of Linux.

I forsee the rise of three varieties of computer users. First, there is and at least for a few decades more will be the command line users. It goes without saying that there are still computer users who are more comfortable getting their work done on a black screen with a single glowing cursor and an encyclopedic knowledge of text commands. More power to them! Until now, there has only been a second category – people who use a GUI of any kind. This is now splitting into people who want “i-Interfaces” like the iPhone/Android “tap for program” pictograph GUI’s I’ve just shown you, and people like myself who will continue to use classic, useful, information-heavy interfaces.

My greatest fear for the future of computing? That Microsoft will continue down this troublesome path and make it harder and harder to get to a text-based, information-centric taskbar that puts control of my computer not just at my fingertips – anyone has that already – but in my line of sight. Who knows what Windows 8 and 9 might bear as options and default settings, but after this unfortunate Linux debacle, I’m inclined to think that it’s already too late for power users. Just look at how the Internet Explorer taskbar has morphed from text-based in IE6 to a bare sliver in IE9. That’s all well and good for a browser…but I don’t want an OS like that.

It was a pain to find computers still running IE6 and IE8 to make this screenshot!

It was a pain to find computers still running IE6 and IE8 to make this screenshot! Click to enlarge.