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 “” 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.