Virtual Desktops

December 15, 2011

I have been a fan of virtual desktops since I first used them in 1999 via a Windows application called Perfect Screens. Multiple desktops made immediate sense to me and I haven't been without them since that first foray.

The Windows-based Perfect Screens allowed you to bind applications to certain desktops or set an application to be visible on all desktops. After some initial experimentation I settled on four desktops, one each for mail/chat, browsing, Word/Excel, and coding. With hot keys setup to allow using the keyboard to jump from desktop to desktop I was in nerd heaven.

In 2002 when I switched to Macintosh computers and Mac OS X, I hunted around for a suitable equivelent to Perfect Screens and found CodeTek VirtualDesktop. Since I was used to the idea of four desktops I continued with that setup on CodeTek.

With the introduction of Spaces in Mac OS X Leopard I stopped using CodeTek's tool. Spaces was both better and worse than CodeTek. I liked that it was part of the operating system, but some of its behaviors were enough different than what I had become accostomed to that it was difficult to switch. Spaces allowed up to 16 desktops and for a time I had that many. Gradually I lowered the number to 9, which was the most I could easily access via the Control-# key board shortcut.

I kept the idea of delagating specific activities to specific spaces or desktops. Space 1 was email, 2 was browsing with my RSS reader and eventually Twitter added. Space 3 was calendaring and to-do lists. Space 4 was my primary terminal console desktop. Spaces 5 through 9 were used as scratch pads. When ever I wanted to open a new instance of and IDE or start an activity that would have multiple windows open, I'd grab an open desktop and start.

Mac OS X Lion reworked Spaces into what is now called Mission Control. Gone is the grid-like arrangment of desktops, instead they are just lined up in a row. Added is the idea of full-screen applications. These occupy their own space or desktop. At first I was resistant to the idea of a full screen application but I have grown to like them, particularly for email, iTunes, and now Xcode. Lion imported my Spaces and I continued to use them as before. With Mail now a full screen app desktop 1 was empty and became my primary terminal console desktop.

One of the annoyances of Apple's implementation of Spaces is how multiple instances of the same application are managed. If you have open two separate copies of your browser, and you click a link in your Twitter application or RSS feed reader it will open in the browser instance that was most recently active. Often I find this not to be the one I wanted. The browser in Space 2 is my primary all-purpose browser. Usually a second instance of the browser was open for a development project and the only tabs present were for that project. Having random links from Twitter or RSS open there was not what I wanted.

Creating multiple Terminal consoles is also an issue with Spaces. If you had a Terminal open in Space 1 and one in Space 4, say, and you Cmd-tab to select a Terminal you would land on the most recently used one. Which often as not was not the one you wanted. There is no way to create a new Terminal window in the current space if one is open in any other space.

These are minor annoyances but annoyances still. One of my co-workers doesn't use virtual desktops. He has all of his applications open on a single space. By using Exposé and Cmd-Tab he switches back and forth between applications. By not having multiple desktops he inadvertantly avoids some of my grumbles. So yesterday I closed all but one space forcing all my applications onto the same destop. I still have Mail, iTunes, and Xcode as full screen apps. And I would run iPhoto that way too, where that an option. The biggest difference is the amount of clutter on my desktop now. After years of having just one or two apps displayed at a time having 13 apps, some with multiple instances open, all on the same desktop is jarring. Only time will tell if I grow to like this new arrangment. I don't know if I'll tend to have just a single instance of my browser running thus avoiding the eeny-meeny problem of which will focus. If nothing else having something different will force me to learn new habits and learning is always good.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.