Mac OS X: The non-spatial Mail

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
June 5th, 2003 • 7:03 pm

Much has been said about Mac OS X’s Finder and its departure from the purely spatial “metaphor” of 1 folder = 1 window, which was used in the classic Mac OS. (You could only have one Finder window representing the contents of a given folder open at a time. If you double-clicked on the same folder again, the classic Finder would simply bring the already open window to the foreground. In Mac OS X, things are not quite the same. You can get all kinds of different behaviours, depending on which view mode you are using, and which preference settings you have changed.)

Well, the departure extends to Apple applications other than the Finder, and I am not sure that it’s a good thing.

For example, in terms of spatial metaphors, Mac OS X’s Mail application is to Qualcomm’s Eudora what the Mac OS X Finder is to the classic Mac OS Finder. Eudora is largely based on a spatial metaphor for mailboxes and messages that is similar to the one used in the classic Finder for folders and files. Mail, on the other hand, don’t work in quite the same way.

Personally, I use Mail’s Viewer Window with the split bar tucked all the way down at the bottom of the main viewing area, so that all I see is a list of messages, with no automatic display of the contents of the currently selected message in the bottom pane (which is effectively invisible when the split bar is all the way down). I also have the mailbox drawer always open on the left-hand side.

First of all, Mail is already non-spatial in that you can have as many Viewer Windows (with their respective mailbox drawers visible or not) as you like open at the same time. Just go to the “File” menu and choose “New Viewer Window”. This is the only way to view the contents of two different mailboxes at the same time — but it also means that you can have two windows displaying the contents of the same mailbox at the same time.

In addition, you can double-click on a message in Viewer Window #1 to open it in a separate message window, and you can do the same with the same message in Viewer Window #2, so that you’ll end up with two windows containing the exact same message. I suppose this can have its uses, although I have yet to feel the need to use such a feature myself.

What’s worse, however, is that, even when you only have one Viewer Window open, if you double-click on a message to open it in a separate window, and then double-click on the exact same message again, Mail opens a second window with the same message. Double-click again, and Mail opens a third. And so on.

It seems to me that this is taking the non-spatial approach a bit too far. More often than not, because of window clutter on my screen, the quickest way for me to find the already-open window of a given message is to double-click again on the message in the Viewer Window. This, however, opens a new window with the message. If the message is a rather long one that I was in the process of reading, and if I had scrolled several screens down in my reading, then this is of no use to me. I have to try and find the original message window where I was reading the message and where things are exactly the way I left them. The only way for me to do this, in other words, is to go to the Mail’s “Window” menu and locate that original window in the list of open windows.

I find this rather frustrating, and something that I simply cannot get used to. I guess it’s one habit from the purely-spatial metaphor days that I cannot get rid of. More importantly, it seems to me that Mail already provides the opportunity to have the same message open in more than one window through the use of several Viewer Windows, as described above. The ability to do so with a single Viewer Window is, therefore, a bit overkill.

How many times do you need to have two windows with the same message open at the same time in Mail? How many times, on the other hand, do you need to bring an already-open message window back to the foreground because it’s hidden due to screen clutter? I’d say the former is much, much more frequent than the latter. This means that the current behaviour in Mail is not appropriate.

I think a good middle-ground would be to tie message windows to their respect Viewer Windows. In other words, if I have one Viewer Window open, and I double-click on a message to open it in a separate window, if that message has already been opened from that Viewer Window through double-clicking, then the new double-clicking should just bring that already-open window to the foreground. This way, the only way to open two windows containing the same message in Mail would be to have two Viewer Windows open and to double-click on the same message in both.

In addition, this would actually be somewhat more consistent with what happens in the Finder in Mac OS X. For example, if you have a Finder window in Columns view, you can cmd-double-click on a folder to open it in a new folder window. If you cmd-double-click a second time on that same folder in that same Finder window, then the Finder will simply bring the already-open folder window to the foreground. It will not open yet another folder window, like Mail does with messages!

In fact, Mac OS X’s Finder is even more restrictive: even if you open a new Finder window, locate the same folder, and cmd-double-click on it to open it in a new folder window, the Finder will still simply bring the already-open folder window (from the other Finder window) to the foreground!

You can have two windows representing the same folder contents in Mac OS X’s Finder, but you have to do it “manually” by browsing down your folder hierarchy. If you cmd-double-click on a folder, it always opens the same separate folder window, just like the classic Finder days (although in those days you didn’t have to hold the cmd key down.)

To make a long story short, once you depart from the purely spatial metaphor, there are multiple opportunities to create a complete windowing mess. The Mac OS X Finder seems to be trying to bring some ORDER BY imposing some sort of still-spatial behaviour when using cmd-double-clicking — whereas Mac OS X’s Mail takes the non-spatial approach too far, by systematically opening a new message window when you double-click repeatedly on the same message in the same list of messages.

The one great thing that the spatial metaphor had going for it was that it could easily be “transposed” from the Finder’s approach for files and folders to other applications and their own approach for their own content. Eudora was a good example of the spatial metaphor “transposed” for messages and mailboxes, within Eudora itself. This made it easy to grasp for people already used to the spatial metaphor in the Finder.

In Mac OS X, things are far more messy, and every individual application tends to adopt its own approach, which forces the user to learn a greater range of behaviours that are inconsistent from one application to the next. It’s rather frustrating for an advanced user like me, so I imagine that it must be quite confusing for not-so-advanced users.

Is this the price to pay for progress? Well, I still hope that the Consistency Team at Apple has not been completely disbanded…

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