On applets, launchers and notification areas

The last post from Ted Gould nails a pretty obvious problem on the GNOME desktop nowadays: the panel is broken.

Not only because of the fact that is one of the remaining bits holding a dependency against ORBit. But also from the ui perspective. The panel is where we throw stuff when we don’t know where to place it. The topic discussed in Ted’s post is quite interesting, the abuse of the notification area. I kind of disagree that apps tend to use the notification area because is some sort of playground or innovation space or anything like that.

I think applications are leaning towards a better window management handling that cannot be achieved with launchers or the task browser.

Think about it for a moment, we have launchers, like the browser one. You launch your browser, and suddenly, you have to waste, I don’t know… 200 pixels for a new task on the task bar? Plus the already wasted space of the launcher of course. Now your app turns out to be so nice, that people want to use it all the time, becoming a persistent app. Well, wasting 200 pixels for each window of your app seems a bit odd, so you end up using the notification area, or creating your own applet to manage your app.

To me, it seems that we could perfectly merge launchers, applets and notifications. Think about it, remove the text from the task manager (which I think that is useless with the amount of windows that people handle nowadays) , allow iconification/minimize from there, allow notifications and rich interaction (showing the album cover for media players, custom context menus…). From the user perspective, this would remove a lot of redundancy.

I think that a dock-like approach such as avant window navigator  (with some GNOME HIG+usability+accesibility’s sauce first of course) or Karl Lattimers’ toy as even would be a much simpler, uncluttered and usable option than our current box of entropy.


15 thoughts on “On applets, launchers and notification areas

  1. As a GNOME user i totally agree. I’m using Ubuntu on my notebook and i installed AWN just because the task browser on the panel was eating way too much space on display.
    I run multiple instances of eclipse, i don’t see why each of them should eat 200px. One thing that i also don’t like is the fact that i have assigned custom icons to my eclipses in the launchers accoding to the workspace they start. in the taskbar i see the same default eclipse icon for both, so even if they take together like 400px, i still have to randomly click them to see which is the good one, as you can’t really tell if you’re not paying attention the the positioning.
    my 2c.


  2. I think Ted Gould’s proposal of separating responsibilities via a declarative interface is much smarter than trying to explore notification alternatives without cleaning up the incestious app/notification interweaving first.


  3. Yeah, I use a Mac half the time these days (feels like I’m moving more and more to it…) and while their dock can be initially a bit confusing for someone coming from a free desktop or Windows, it feels like it makes much more sense in the long run. If it makes any sense at all for an application to run without a window, it’s usually possible; if the application is running, it appears in the dock and gets a context menu it can customize.
    It’s no heaven and it does have scalability problems but they aren’t nowhere near as bad as the window list (which I’ve never used outside Windows, I think it’s a horrible UI concept) and it removes to need for the “minimize to notification area” thing which has so many problems on both conceptual level and in practical usability it’s difficult to know where to start.
    Last time I tried AWN it was far from ready and this is something that would require support from applications, too. But I think it would be a good direction.


  4. What you describe sounds very similar to Windows 7’s taskbar- something that was also outlined on live.gnome.org several years ago and then forgotten about. (I’ll look up the link and post it later.)
    AWN is already mature and stable, and the 0.6 rewrite will add on support for the most commonly requested features. (E.g. Support for any orientation.)
    The goal of the Universal Applets project is to do the exact same thing (also using DBUS and XEmbed) in a panel/dock-agnostic manner. There still hasn’t been a first stable release, but the API is nearly complete and applets are 100% usable.


  5. I totally agree that the panel is broken, I mean for one, menu-editing happens using the panel. panel-ditem-editor etc…
    Now really we should have menu editing off somewhere with a nice library allowing us to retrieve the items in a pleasant way. Providing menu search facilities etc…
    Another example (which I believe is now fixed) is that the session shutdown was handled by the panel, where logout could be achieved through gnome-session-save shutdown wasn’t there, but instead hidden away in the panels code without being exported to the rest of GNOME, only usable by other applets if they were built with the panel…
    When I discovered that, my WTF/min went up to approx 32.4!
    There’s not only these things which are bizarre but there are issues in the way that notification icons are handled, firstly as Ted mentioned there are lots of notification icons and they all tend to work in different ways. Next up is this, which I consider absolute lunacy; http://bugzilla.gnome.org/show_bug.cgi?id=562362
    yes, that’s right, we can’t even adhere to fitts’ law…
    My toy specifically is a hackish little python script but it works nicely enough 🙂 Also people can hack on the code here http://gitorious.org/projects/pywidgets
    I think it’s time we started looking at new ways of presenting the desktop, an idea that has sprung to mind is “functional presentation” which I will be writing more about in the future.


  6. A few quick points:
    1. With the increased use of laptops and now netbooks screen real estate is at a premium. Having a huge panel and a dock is taking away from the available locations where people actually do work. Getting to them under a stack of windows is problematic and having them over the windows kinda takes away the are people are focusing on to get the actual work done.
    2. I really like the document-centric approach and having a temporal aspect to their discovery such as in the small corner widgets mockups on Karl’s page are interesting.
    3. While the notification stuff is really nice, when things pop up in front of my coding, it is a distraction (even if I do want to know which Debbie Gibson song is playing…)
    Just my $0.02.


  7. The Mac-like dock seems nice; but what happens if I have multiple browser windows minimized and want to restore one specific window – is that possible with a single click? Or is there a better way to get the same functionality?


  8. I totally agree.
    The panel, applets, application, notification and window management metaphor needs a big overhaul, every one of this aspects needs to be analyzed together (not one by one) since they all concur to the final user experience.
    Let me add that for working reasons I’ve switched to OS X almost a year ago (it’s our standard working platform), the dock rocks and the top panel with the global menu bar on the left and indicators pushed to the right (not manually positioned as gnome applets) is great. But the killer feature for me is exposè that makes windows switching effective and fast without wasting a single pixel on my screen, compared to the windows style task bar that (as you noted) wastes a lot of spaces and is not as effective. With exposè I always switch to the right window, with the task bar I often switch the wrong one, the mechanism is just ineffective and slower since I waste my time reading the title description that’s the only information available compared to a visual representation of the window I want to switch to, with exposè my mental reaction is almost instantaneous.
    I’m not very informed about the gnome-shell but at least it seems like an attempt to introduce something new.


  9. The taskbar is not practical for more than a few apps. That’s why I removed the taskbar long ago :).
    A pager with 2×10 virtual desktops is much better to manage a lot of apps. I make the pager big enough so that each window is clearly visible, with a nice icon inside. And the fact that the virtual desktops are on two column, allows you to use your spatial memory ie: bottom-left virtual desktop for email …


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