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What's on Your Dock?

by Giles Turnbull

Follow me, ladies and gentlemen, on a journey into the minds of some of your fellow Mac users.

We're going to peek into the heads of a smug of Mac users (can anyone think of a better collective noun?)--writers, bloggers, designers, movers, and yes, even shakers--on a quest to find out something crucial about their personalities; their quirks and habits; to delve into their very souls.

Yes, you guess correctly. We are going to look at their Docks.

You know how it is. You're sitting somewhere, next to another Mac user you don't know (at a conference, in the Apple Store, on the plane, wherever), and you just can't resist the urge to send a sideways glance at the other person's Dock.

Then, having seen it, you're desperate to know...just what is that little icon you've seen there? Is that some cool app you've never heard of? Perhaps it's the does-everything-right email client of your dreams. Perhaps it will save your company millions. And why does this person have their Dock that way round? And without the bouncy icons? Are they crazy or something? You have to know more, and you can't stop yourself from interrupting your neighbor's train of thought to say, "Hey, what's with your Dock?"

Your neighbor, of course, hasn't been working either. The process has been working both ways, and your neighbor will doubtless respond with, "I'll tell you, if you tell me what that is."

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Consider this article your electronic plane ride, an opportunity to sit alongside some Mac users you've heard of and some you haven't heard of, and ask them: What's on your Dock?

We're also going to ask people what they think of the Dock as an important part of the OS X user interface. While we're at it, we're going to take the briefest of looks at some of the Dock clones and replacements, just to see how they compare.

Delving into Docks

Our first victim brave volunteer is award-winning programmer and creator of everyone's favorite Mac OS X news reader, Brent Simmons.

Brent is the first to admit he's an old Mac hand, and one of those people who likes to keep his fingers on the keyboard. He keeps his Dock standing vertically on the right side of the screen ("It's just a familiarity thing," he says) and likes to switch off things like magnification and bouncing icons.

"I keep it as still as possible. I don't like moving targets. All the bouncing and magnifying makes for great demos, but for day-to-day work I find it distracting."

Figure 1: Brent Simmons's Dock
Figure 1: Brent Simmons's Dock

So, what do we find on the Dock of this OS X developer? From top to bottom: Finder, NetNewsWire (last release version), Mail, Safari, Transmit, BBEdit, Huevos, Terminal, Project Builder, NetNewsWire (latest build version), Home directory, Apps directory, Documents directory, a Finder window, and the Trash. (See Figure 1.)

Brent likes the Dock, and says he's not considered using an alternative. But.

"Dock space is limited. The more apps and windows, the smaller the icons get, and the harder it is to tell one from another. (I could turn on magnification, but I hate scrubbing the dock just to find out what something is.) I don't know that there's a really good solution to this problem--how could space not be limited?"

That's why, he says, he wrote the Menu Bar launcher app Tigerlaunch. To free up valuable Dock space.

Rob McNair-Huff, writer and publisher of Mac-oriented weblog Mac Net Journal, worries less about saving Dock space. His Dock is crammed with an eye-poppingly long list of apps, but changes constantly as he experiments with recent downloads (see Figure 2).

Rob McNair-Huff's Dock
Figure 2: Rob McNair-Huff's Dock

Rob's Dock is also positioned vertically, this time on the left of the screen. It doesn't always live there, though.

"My Dock also moves around. When I took the screenshot, it was on the left but a lot of the time it's on the right."

His Dock contains, from top down: Finder, Palm Desktop, PowerMail, iChat AV, Fire, NetNewsWire, Tinderbox, OmniOutliner, OmniWeb, Safari, Internet Explorer, URL Manager Pro, iView Media Pro, Hydra SubEthaEdit, BBEdit, AppleWorks, CopyPaste, Transmit, iTunes, VNCThing, TextEdit, System Preferences, Wings 2003, Wiretap, Toast, Print Center, CoooL, ChronoSync, X11, the Hard Disk, a couple of Tinderbox outlines, a Quicken 98 file, and the Trash. Phew.

Why so much? Rob's Dock is a place to store apps under review, and recent downloads that may or may not earn a long-term Dock position. iChat AV was one such new arrival, removed by Rob shortly after he took this screenshot.

Rob is another Dock fan, and says it's a useful part of the OS X user interface. But this former OS 9 user still misses the Control Strip.

"You used to be able to get little utilities for the Control Strip that were so useful and informative. Sure, you can have Dock icons that display information but they're not as clear to see unless you have them displayed large.

"I used to use something called One Click as a launcher; it was great in combination with the Control Strip. There's nothing like that functionality in OS X."

John Gruber ought to have opinions about the Dock. He's been developing Mac software for years now, and was one of the team members that brought you BBEdit. He is ambivalent about the Dock.

John Gruber's Dock
Figure 3: John Gruber's Dock

John's Dock is as follows: Finder, System Preferences, Super Get Info, BBEdit, Mailsmith, Transmit, Safari, Camino, NetNewsWire, iChat AV, Script Debugger, iTunes, Terminal, SpamSieve, BBAutoComplete, DragThing, and LaunchBar.

Wait a minute: DragThing and LaunchBar? Yup. John's a two-launcher kind of guy.

He says: "When I used to use OS 9 I used the Application Switcher in much the same way as I use the Dock now. I also used to use DragThing to launch items; I had pretty much every application on the computer available from one of DragThing's tabs. I still use DragThing on OS X, but now it's for palettes that I use with certain applications--so, I have a palette of AppleScript controls that I use regularly within Mailsmith."

He's aware that there are some people who despise the Dock, but he neither loves it nor hates it. There are two things he'd like to change about it:

"If you want to drag an application onto Super Get Info, the icon slips around all over the place. I'd prefer the default behavior to be the opposite. Second, the Command-Tab app switching system on the Dock really doesn't work, but if what I've seen in screenshots of Panther is true, that's going to be addressed."

The Dock works differently for different kinds of users, and John really hits the nail on the head with this comment:

"It's interesting--my parents use the Dock all the time. They only run a handful of applications and the concept of switching between running apps or launching apps isn't really something they understand, or care about. They just click on the icon in the Dock, and it works very well for them. For advanced users, the Dock is not much good as a launcher. But it's OK as a switcher."

As a man whose profession revolves around words, you can expect two things from Adam Engst: (1) his Dock will be full of text editors and word processors, and (2) he will have a lot to say about them.

Adam Engst's Dock
Figure 4: Adam Engst's Dock

Adam, editor of TidBITS, everyone's favorite email newsletter about Macs and Macness (like I needed to tell you that), makes little asides as he lists all the items stored on his Dock.

"Finder, System Preferences, Nisus Writer 6.01 (We use a lot of Nisus macros for TidBITS; it's still the Classic version), Internet Explorer (I only keep it there for things I can't open in Safari), Safari, Eudora (Mmm, new icon, not sure what I think about that yet), Now Up-to-Date, iTunes, iChat AV, PhoneValet (it's a new app I'm testing; it manages incoming calls using caller ID), iPhoto, LaunchBar (I use it to launch everything else that's not on the Dock), Seti@Home (I run it as an app, rather than a screensaver, to use up all those extra cycles), QuicKeys (I use this all the time; I've got my function keys mapped to certain apps, and I've been using that system for years to switch between apps), Word, BBEdit, NoteBook, Acrobat, Remote Desktop, SubEthaEdit (what a great program), Merriam-Webster dictionary (classic app), and Terminal (I use the units program all the time)."

Observant readers will notice that Adam likes to put his processor to work. Almost all of the apps in that list were running when he took the screenshot. Why?

"The reason I have a lot of apps running goes back to pre OS X days. I've always had a lot of Start Up items; I preferred to switch between running apps than wait for apps to launch, plus it helped prevent problems with fragmented memory. Now under OS X I have 15 Login Items that launch on startup. I just want to get everything into RAM."

Adam is something of a reluctant Dock user. "The Dock is kind of confused. It's a switcher, it's a launcher, it does lots of other little jobs and puts them all in one place. I'm not hugely happy with it, and if it were easy to switch off altogether I would probably have done that long ago."

"But Apple makes it hard to switch if off and so I've ended up using it because I can't get rid of it. I have accepted that there are various ways it can be useful."

Allow web designer and weblogger-of-note Jason Kottke to bring some additional variety to our tour. His Dock is the first one we've encountered that lives where Apple intended it to--along the bottom of the screen.

Jason Kottke's Dock
Figure 5: Jason Kottke's Dock

"Chalk it up to a lack of imagination," he says. "It's the default location, and I got used to using it down there and haven't really thought of changing it. Also, as a switcher, it was an easy transition from the Windows taskbar at the bottom of the screen to the Dock at the bottom of the screen. I do see a lot of people who use it at the side of the screen ... I'm beginning to think I'm doing something wrong."

Here's what's on Jason's Dock: Finder, Entourage, Camino, BBEdit, Photoshop, iTunes, Adium, Sherlock, Watson, Terminal, Internet Explorer, Transmit, iPhoto, Safari, iChat, System Preferences, Grab, Applications Folder, Trash.

The arrangement of apps on his Dock reflects their frequency of use, with almost-always-on apps to the left, less-often-used apps to the right. He lets icons bounce, has the Genie effect switched off, and uses the magnification function ("It helps me find what I'm looking for more quickly; this could just be a perception thing, but it makes me feel faster").

Jason's only Dock complaint is this: "One of the worst usability aspects of the Dock is that it's anchored in the middle. So when you launch an app that you don't already have in the Dock or minimize a window, it shifts everything over and messes with your muscle memory."

Our final subject is law student Victoria McDonnell, who grew up with Macs at school but until earlier this year was a regular Linux user. Until, that is, she bought an iMac.

Victoria's Dock is home to: Finder, Terminal, Mail, iChat, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, Camino, Internet Explorer, iTunes, Calculator, iPhoto, System Preferences, AppleWorks, and X11.

Victoria McDonnell's Dock
Figure 6: Victoria McDonnell's Dock

"I don't like any Mac stuff earlier than OS X,", she says. "But when I first used it, I fell in love with OS X."

Victoria is one of those people who likes her computer desktop to look neat and tidy. Her Dock, too, is subject to rigorous control. She has three different instant messenger applications there, and runs gaim via the X11 window manager ("So maybe I could get rid of those other messaging apps").

Victoria continues: "I like a clean desktop. I hate apps that put their icons on the Dock without asking; I only want to see the applications that I really need to use often."

Dock Alternatives

Our tour through Dockspace leaves us with very little room for further exploration, but let's take a minimized look at some of the utilities available that mimic some of the Dock's functions.

My personal favorite is LaunchBar. Just a few taps on the keyboard lets me launch pretty much any file or application on the computer. It can also open web bookmarks and new email messages. The only thing it doesn't do is show, at a glance, what's running, and for some reason that's something I like to know. So LaunchBar has not replaced my Dock, merely given me fewer reasons for mousing over to it. The Dock still sits on the right side of my screen, icons shrunk small and unmagnified, but really it's only there to tell me what's running. I do all my app launching and switching with LaunchBar.

The best feature of LaunchBar is that there's no setup required. It does all the work, hunting down your apps and files, and intelligently working out what keys you might hit to find them. It's the lazy Mac user's friend.

Other people swear by Dock alternatives that behave more like the Dock. DragThing is an oldtimer from OS 9 but still has a lot of loyal users on OS X. Much the same can be said of DragStrip.

Dock-a-like apps such as ParaDocks will appeal to some, but OS 9-style Launcher clones like, um, Launcher will be more popular with others. You might also like to consider alternatives such as QuickerPicker or PocketDock. It all depends on how much pointing and clicking you are prepared to do to make things happen on your computer.

However you manage your application launching and switching, you can be sure that your solution is almost certainly going to be unique. We've taken the briefest of glances over the shoulders of six other Mac users here, and seen six completely different ways of thinking. Vive la difference!

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at

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