Spaces (Mac OS X 10.5): Still does not do the basic stuff right

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
March 14th, 2008 • 9:28 am

A while ago, I wrote about the “Spaces” feature in Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard), which I would very much like to be able to use as a way to enhance my computing experience. I tend to do a lot of multi-tasking, and I could use a feature that helps me organize things better visually.

As I noted in my earlier post, even if it worked as expected, Spaces would still be a source of frustration, in part because of the fact that it is, like Mac OS X itself, an application-centric tool.

Initially, in my experience at least, Spaces was not just flawed but actually buggy, with windows occasionally disappearing altogether with no easy way to bring them back. So I quickly gave up on it.

Since then, however, Mac OS X 10.5 has gone through two system updates, and there have been other developments that could help make Spaces more useful. In particular, the Fluid tool enables you to create site-specific stand-alone browser applications. This is quite useful if one of the problems you have with Spaces is that you use the same application—Safari—for various unrelated tasks.

In my case, I use Safari to access a couple of terminology databases that I need for my work. But of course I also use Safari for browsing all kinds of sites that have nothing to do with my work. So now with Fluid I can separate the two, and I can assign the site-specific browser applications to the same space as the other applications I use for my work, so that switching to my terminology databases does not cause my system to change spaces.

Because of these developments, I figured I would give Spaces another try this week. But I must admit that, while I haven’t encountered any serious bugs yet, there are still major issues that make the experience of using Spaces more frustrating than it should be.

One issue in particularly is with what happens when an action in one application causes Mac OS X to switch you to another application, and then you want to go back to where you were.

For example, I frequently have e-mail messages containing links to various web sites. I do not use Mail in a single-window mode. Instead, I open each message in its own separate window, and then I click on a link in that window to open the corresponding web site in Safari.

Since Mail and Safari are in two different spaces on my machine, this causes Mac OS X to switch spaces to open the site in Safari, which is fine. What is not fine, however, is what happens when I press command-Tab to return to where I was in Mail.

The command-Tab shortcut correctly switches me back to the Mail application in its own space, but instead of bringing me back to the message window containing the link that I just clicked on, it actually brings me back to the main Mail Viewer window.

This is simply wrong. If Mail and Safari were in the same space, command-Tab would return me exactly to where I came from, i.e. to the message window containing the link that I just clicked on. But because Mail and Safari are in two different spaces, Mac OS X completely ignores the fact that I was viewing the message in a separate window and instead returns me to the main Mail Viewer window.

I have little doubt that the reason for this flaw is that most Apple engineers use Mail in its default three-pane view mode, where messages are not viewed in a separate window but instead in the “message area” in the bottom-half of the main Mail Viewer window. In that view mode, obviously returning to the main Mail Viewer window is appropriate, because it is where the message in question is actually displayed.

But if, like me, you don’t use the message area and are used to viewing your messages in separate windows, then Spaces quickly becomes a very frustrating experience. Each time you click or double-click on something in a message to open it in its parent application, when you switch back to Mail with command-Tab, you are taken to the wrong place, and you have to switch back to that message window manually using the “Cycle Through Windows” shortcut or some other means.

Putting Mail and Safari in the same space would only alleviate the problem somewhat, because the same issue applies to attachments in mail messages and to their own parent applications. So in order to avoid the issue altogether I would have to put all the parent applications of all the attachments that I might get in e-mails in the same space. At that rate, I might as well not use Spaces at all.

As long as Spaces still does not do these most basic things right, I am afraid I am still not going to be able to use it on a regular basis in my work. It helps organize my windows, but if it adds unnecessary steps to the most common tasks, then the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.

5 Responses to “Spaces (Mac OS X 10.5): Still does not do the basic stuff right”

  1. AlanY says:

    I can’t reproduce this behavior. Switching to Safari in another space and then back to Mail selects the last Mail window for me.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    OK, I need to investigate this further. The problem actually occurs not with Safari assigned to another space, but with Safari not assigned to any specific space, while Mail is assigned to a specific space.

    And it actually occurs after even simpler actions. Just switching to a different space, opening a window in that space and then hitting command-Tab to return to the previous application returns to a different window in that application.

    It’s all very confusing, and obviously not right. But I need to come up with a 100%-reproducible behaviour. Hang tight :-).

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    OK, it looks like the required steps are as follows:

    1) Assign Mail to Space 1.
    2) Do NOT assign Safari to any space nor to “Every Space”.
    3) Open Mail in Space 1.
    4) Switch to Space 2.
    5) Open Safari in Space 2.
    6) Go back to Space 1 and open a message containing web links in a separate window in Mail.
    7) Click on one of the web links. This should switch you to Space 2 and open the site in a new window in Safari.
    8) Use command-Tab to switch back to Mail.

    Now, at least on my machine, the frontmost window in Mail is the mail viewer window, and the message window that was in the foreground when I left Mail is now in the background.

    Can you reproduce this?

  4. JKT says:

    This isn’t unique to Mail. It happens with practically every app I use with more than one window open at the time – the wrong one always gains focus whenever jumping from one space to another, the correct one never. E.g. in OmniWeb I have the main window, the Downloads window and the Activity window open at all times and OmniWeb is assigned to a particular space. If another application grabs focus causing a switch of space, when I subsequently go back to OmniWeb, either the Downloads or the Activity window will have grabbed focus instead of the main window.

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    Yes, I am afraid you are right. It applies to all applications. My scenario is just a 100% reproducible one involving Mail and Safari.

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