Multitasking in the aughts.

8 05 2005

A post in Tom’s livejournal made me think a bit about how people use computers in the modern day.
Back in the Dark Ages (the 80’s and early 90’s), most PC’s ran single tasking operating systems that let you run (with only slight variation) one program at a time. You ran one program, when you were done with it, you closed it, and ran something else. This mindset set the stage for many people’s home-computer use.
By way of digression, I use the term ‘PC’ in the generic defintion, not in the context of an “IBM Compatible Computer”, after IBM co-opted the name in 1983.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Because of this “One screen, one application” approach, folks who continued working on Microsoft-based systems tended to stick with that model, while those who ‘branched out’ into alternate systems, such as the Amiga or the MacIntosh, or spent time with the early Unix X windows environments, tend to work on their machines in ‘multitasking’ modes. Running many applications at once, and flipping between them rapidly.
More recently, Windows systems have progressed to the point where it is feasible to actually run more than one application at once efficiently. But even with that improvement, compare how a Unix desktop user operates with the way a Windows user operates.
Unix (and by extension Linux, and even Mac folks) tend to run their desktops as a series of floating or tiled windows – each application running in its own window, but with the windows overlapping or tiling. On Unix, I personally set up multiple desktops – one having my ‘communications’ stuff (email, irc, etc), and another having my ‘work’ desktop (editor, compiler, reference materials). My experience watching Windows users tends to show them running the 2 or 3 applications they have available all in full screen mode – and generally it is in fact only 1-2 apps.
At the moment, in a ‘quick off the cuff’ setup on my laptop, I have 3 windows on a single desktop (shell, browser, and irc), with 1-2 small things in the dock (Jabber, etc). But even within my browser, I have 5-6 tabs open. To me, this is a minimalist setup. To a windows user, this would be ‘busy’.
I’m not making any value judgements here, just an observance. Much of this came to light watching people use Internet Explorer – a browser I find supremely inferior to Firefox, if only for Firefox’ ability to use Tabs. This (IMHO) quantum leap in browser useability is not as strong a draw to Windows users because, I believe, this mindset of ‘one app at a time’ softens the attraction to a tabbed interface. There’s just nothing for a Windows user to latch onto and say “Oh, I could see how that could help!” Whereas Unix and Mac users are all over it. (I’ll note that Safari, under OSX, has a tabbed interface).
I’m not going in for bashing Windows users here – to each user his or her own. But to me this does go to explain why Windows users haven’t flocked en masse to Firefox (though the adoption rate by Windows user is quite high all things considered – this mostly driven by the incredible insecurity of IE).




3 responses

8 05 2005
Sarah T

I think it also has to do with personality. I definitely have four windows up almost every time my computer is on (Firefox, Eudora, AIM, and IRC). At work, I frequently run so many things that I can no longer read the titles in the taskbar! But I’m a known multi-tasker 🙂

8 05 2005

Right now I have two Firefox windows, one with two tabs and the other with one. I have an SSH, a mapping program, Word, and Excel. This is somewhat atypical for me; usually I have more browser tabs, an IRC client, and a copy of Eudora, but I shut a bunch of stuff down in order to run a memory- and CPU-expensive toy in the other Firefox window.
I have the Windows virtual desktop toy. But it’s so slow that I only ever use it for separating programming tasks (which I’m not doing right now, but when I do it’s three or four vi instances, tkCVS, and bash) from play tasks, when I want the extra overhead of switching back and forth.

9 05 2005

Under X, I have umpty-seven zillion windows open at a time too. This is partly just because of the Unix mindset, but also partly because I use them to store context. I’ll leave things in a terminal window that remind me what I was working on there, or I’ll leave Firefox tabs open that I’m going to want to refer to again while I’m working on a project, but that I don’t want to save permanently. (The latter tendency bites me sometimes, when my browser crashes and I have to recreate my context.)
The amusing thing is when I finish a project but don’t close all the windows associated with it, and then three weeks later I uncover them.
At home, I’ve switched to using a Mac more often than not, but I find that the Mac windowing interface (in particular the fact that minimized windows take up space, and not being able to pick hidden or minimized windows out of an alphabetized list) puts an upper limit on how many windows I can usefully have open at a time. Also, switching between apps is a slightly more heavyweight operation under OS X, due to click-to-focus and to the way window stacking, the menubar, and text selection work.

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