Using Mac OS X’s Dock: It’s still a struggle

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
January 12th, 2004 • 5:29 am

After all these years of fiddling and experimenting with various configurations, I find that it is still a struggle to use Mac OS X’s Dock in a satisfactory fashion. It tries to do too many different things, and does none of them right.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am seriously addicted to LaunchBar, which I use as my primary user interface for launching applications (and other items).

This means that I do not use the Dock as a launcher. The logical thing then is to use it as a substitute for the Application menu or palette of the classic Mac OS, i.e. something that indicates at all times which applications are open, lets you switch between them, and provides some information about the status of applications running in the background.

The problem is that there is no way to organize the Dock properly for this. If you remove all permanent icons (i.e. icons that were manually added by dragging them to the Dock or by choosing “Keep in Dock” while the corresponding application was open) from the Dock, it will only contain the icons of the applications that are currently open. But it won’t sort them in alphabetical order. They will simply appear in the order in which they were launched.

This means that, depending on what you launched first or subsequently quit and relaunched, icons for individual programs are not likely to stay in the same location in the Dock. You might, like me, have a number of items in your “Startup Items” list (formerly known as “Login Items”), which are launched in a specific order when you first log in, before any other application is launched (and added to the Dock). In other words, in theory these startup applications should all appear in the same location in the Dock at all times (starting from the Finder icon at the extreme left). But if any of these applications happen to crash at some point and need relaunching, then their icons will no longer be in their original location, because they were now launched “later on” and will appear further to the right.

Since Mac OS X Is a fairly stable system, you don’t log out and log back in every day. So Apple cannot really expect the user to log out and log back in just in order to put the icons for his most frequently used applications (the ones included in his Startup Items) back in the right order.

So the Dock doesn’t work well as an Application menu/palette either, because its icons cannot be made to always appear in an order that follows some kind of logic without forcing them to stay there all the time.

What I have ended up doing is forcing all the icons for the applications in my Startup Items to stay in a specific order in the Dock at all times, on the far left, near the Finder icon. Since I put these applications in my Startup Items, it means that I want them open all the time. If one of them crashes, I will relaunch it right away, so it can be in a fixed location on the far left of the Dock without defeating the purpose of only using the Dock for currently open applications.

But this doesn’t solve the problem for applications that I did not include in my Startup Items. Their icons will be added to the right of the left-hand side of the Dock, in the order in which they are launched. Since I don’t always launch these less-frequently-used applications in the same order, this means that their location in the Dock will constantly change. And it also makes the actual size of the Dock unpredictable.

I could hide the Dock permanently and use the Process Dock of an application such as DragThing, but this is not really a solution either, because DragThing cannot fully replace Mac OS X’s Dock: There is no way (that I am aware of) to get DragThing to use the Process Dock to notify the user when an application requires his attention. And there is no way to have additional information added to Process Dock icons — such as the message counter in the Mail icon or the current date in the iCal icon.

In addition, unless you want to do some serious hacking, you cannot actually turn off the Dock, only make it autohide, which means that it will still pop out whenever you drag your mouse to the bottom of your screen and that its icons will still intrude on your working space whenever Mac OS X makes them bounce high to grab your attention.

To make a long story short, Mac OS X’s Dock is still a hybrid beast that doesn’t work quite right, yet cannot really be turned off and replaced by a better-designed third-party tool. (And I’ve not even mentioned the additional confusion caused by the use of the right-hand side of the Dock!)

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