Mac OS X 10.5: Spaces is both buggy and flawed

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
November 13th, 2007 • 1:20 pm

There are a couple of recent blog posts about the new Spaces feature in Mac OS X 10.5:

To a point, I agree with John Gruber that one of the main issues is that “Spaces seems designed for app partitioning, not task partitioning.”

But I think the more fundamental issue here is that Mac OS X is still above all an application-centric operating system. If you want to work on a document, you first have to choose the application that you are going to use for your work. You cannot just create a new document and then work on it using various tools from various applications. Mac OS X is not a document-centric operating system.

And Spaces, like Mac OS X itself, is an application-centric feature. It is quite obvious when you look at the preference pane itself. The only thing you can do is assign specific applications to specific spaces. You cannot assign specific documents or specific windows. Yet a given application can be used in many different ways, for many different purposes.

For example, I use Safari to access a terminology database that I use for my translation work—but of course I also use Safari to access a lot of other web sites that have nothing to do with my translation work. I want to keep the Safari window for the terminology database in a specific space for my translation work, and I don’t want this particular Safari window to appear in any other space.

The only way to do this is to avoid assigning Safari either to a specific space or to every space, and to manually move the Safari window with the terminology database to a specific space, and then hope that Safari never crashes and always keeps the window there—which of course is pretty unrealistic, since Safari will crash or be quit for one reason or the other and I will be forced to manually move the window back to the appropriate space again and again.

Because of this fundamental limitation, I feel that there is simply no way that a feature like Spaces will ever work properly, or at least in a way that meets the needs of people who work in a task-oriented or document-oriented fashion. If you cannot permanently assign specific “documents” (or web sites in the case of Safari) to specific spaces, then there is simply no way to achieve stability in the design of your various spaces. You will have to manually rebuild them again and again, each time you close and open documents.

In addition, if you do keep an application like Safari unassigned, then you will keep encountering the problems described in the other blog posts, with Spaces switching from space to space without your consent. Now, maybe Apple will be able to fix some of these problems—but I don’t think Apple will ever be able to address the fundamental problem of being unable to assign specific documents to specific spaces, in part because applications themselves would probably need to become Spaces-aware, which they are not at the moment. I just don’t see developers such as Microsoft and Adobe ever making any effort to try and support such a requirement.

In truth, it would take a complete redesign of the OS itself, with a much more document-centric approach. Apple has tried this in the past, with the OpenDoc architecture, but it never really happened, and now we just have to content ourselves with scraps of document-centric functionality provided indirectly either by the OS or by some third-party tools such as Spell Catcher X and LaunchBar.

Finally, it should be noted that Spaces is not only flawed in the way described above, but also actually buggy, in a very real way. In my attempts to use Spaces on my dual-monitor setup, I have encountered a bug where sometimes the windows of an entire space all disappear altogether. The parent applications still believe that the windows are visible, but they are not, and there is no way to bring them back except to turn Spaces off altogether, and then back on, and then rebuild all your spaces manually. It is extremely frustrating and, in my experience, with my dual-monitor setup, it happens quite often, which effectively renders Spaces unusable anyway.

Needless to say, I’ve turned the feature off for now. And somehow I don’t think I’ll turn in back on any time soon—which is too bad, because I’d really like to be able to divide my computing activities into separate environments. But I fear that, with an application-centric OS such as Mac OS X, it just simply never going to happen.

2 Responses to “Mac OS X 10.5: Spaces is both buggy and flawed”

  1. AlanY says:

    I see your points, but overall I’ve been very impressed with Spaces.

    The first blog post you link to is kind of silly in my view… he says Spaces is “broken” because Apple-Tab only switches to a single Space. Of course it does, because Apple-Tab is an application switcher, not a document switcher! What he’s really complaining about is the design of Apple-Tab, not the design of Spaces. Spaces is only incidental to his rant. There is some merit to the argument that Apple-Tab should be a window or document switcher (and I would agree), but since this functionality is provided by good, mature third-party apps (e.g. Peter Maurer’s “Witch”) if one wants it, his complaint is pretty trivial in my view.

    Overall, Spaces is the first virtual desktop application I’ve enjoyed using. I’ve tried Virtua Desktops, the Windows PowerToy, and various Unix tools, and most of them were just not well enough integrated for me to use on a regular basis. On the other hand, I’ve been using Spaces consistently since getting Leopard. The zoom in/zoom out metaphor is perfect, being able to drag windows from one space to another is great (yes, many Unix pagers have this, but only in a kind of iconic, small representation, and not live… you can’t zoom out and watch video playing in another space for instance), and I love how if you grab a window you can push it to another space by moving to a screen edge without having to invoke Spaces at all. I also appreciate the speed. Even on my Macbook with integrated graphics, it’s *very* fast… I appreciate that they didn’t take the Virtua desktops approach and add eye-candy like spinning cubes which add latency.

    I suspect there will be third party solutions to spreading collections of windows across multiple spaces on application startup. The only applications where this is a big need for me are my web browsers and OmniOutliner, and if you think about the interface requirements for this, it would be a fairly baroque feature to add to the base operating system. As usual, I think Apple’s implementation absolutely nails 90% of common users needs, and does so in a very polished way, leaving the additional bits to third parties.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Alan: Once they fix the obvious bugs, I will definitely give Spaces another proper run as a tool in my work. I agree that some aspects of it are well done—on my 30″ + 23″ dual-monitor setup, the ability to drag windows from space to space and overall slickness are pretty impressive.

    But the fact remains that I don’t see how the feature can overcome the fundamental obstacle of being based on an application-centric OS. It might still become a useful addition to my palette of tools, but it certainly will never be able to fully realize the dream of a document-centric or task-centric work environment. And I am also not really sure that only 10% of common user needs require such an environment.

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