Now and again, itís worth a few minutes for the curious
computer user to take a swing by Microsoft Research (http://research.microsoft.com) and
take a look at what theyíve been up to. On a recent scan, I noticed something
Iíd overlooked before called ĎScalable Fabric.í Itís not new but itís actually
a smarter approach to managing running applications on the desktop.
Competing for attention with Scalable Fabric are flawed
ideas built around tearing down the standard Windows interface paradigms
(despite their utility). For instance, Office 2007ís new Ribbon attempts to do
things like destroy the combo box and hide some features while making others
more prevalent under the false assumption that the Office application is the desktop. I thought that idea died shortly after Office 95 was delivered, but
someone must have needed that stake they pulled from its heart for a new
Another surprisingly unwieldy solution is the incorporation
of XML into managing displays. This approach has promise, but is likely to
create some monstrosities where form will overshadow function and consistency
in the interface will suffer. Thereís nothing wrong with any of that unless
people forget that an interface needs to be usable first, pretty second.
Scalable Fabricís approach is to extend and modify rather than retire and
replace working interfaces as it allows improved flexibility in the use of the current
desktop and offers the same advances to redesigned interfaces.
The next several paragraphs may serve only to confuse at
first. But read through them and give them a little thought. The true
cleverness and utility of the Scalable Fabric tool really canít be well
understood without a better understanding of why Scalable Fabric is even
necessary. If you canít stand to do all the thinking before trying the tool, by
all means, go install a copy from http://research.microsoft.com/research/downloads/default.aspx (scroll to Microsoft Scalable Fabric and click the link.) Once youíve installed
it, perhaps managing your running applications will be changed enough that
reading the rest of the article will spark an idea or two. If youíd like to see
an internal video of this thing at work, take a look at the Channel 9
production, http://channel9.msdn.com/Showpost.aspx?postid=14162&pvrid=200 . Youíll have to forgive Scoble (the guy who recorded the video), as the screen
and concept were really too large for him to easily capture the full impact
with a mere video camera!
The ĎReal Estateí Problem
With newer, larger LCD displays becoming the norm, a huge
amount of the space taken by a maximized application is not returning useful
data to the user. For instance, as I write this article in Word and think about
how I normally work within that environment, a 1024x768 screen is large enough
for most of my writing efforts. If Iím working on layout for anything but the
simplest documents, a larger space is more useful. Part of what drives that
need for space is that the toolbars and Help windows Iím likely to have open for
the editing job take more than 20% of the available area to show me the 2-3% of
that space which I might be using. The actual editing area is more than 80%
wasted until I start to think of the formatting of the document from a larger
Other applications are even less efficient, however. For
instance, the Lotus Notes 6.x client is so poorly designed in its user
interfaces that the ability to adequately navigate and understand a single
message is a challenge in 1024x768, let alone any attempt one might make to
understand a thread of messages.
The solution for these problems is obviousómore Ďreal
estateí is needed which translates to larger displays. At home Iím lucky enough
to have invested in a nice 20Ē LCD monitor a few years ago. Itís nice enough
that working on the corporate ThinkPad with its 1024x768 resolution limit is a
really strong contrast.
Once the larger display is in place, a new problem becomes
evident. Running at 1600x1200, a full screen, new document in Word is a HUGE
amount of white space. Itís enough, in fact, that you can feel blinded by all
that white area. There must be a better way to use all that space!
Aspect Ratios and Horizontal Preference
This is a short part of the problem with PC displays. PC
monitors are most commonly used in productivity applications to display
cascading or Ďspillingí data. In literal English, Iím referring to the tendency
to create data which flows horizontally until a horizontal limit is reached. At
that limit, any new data Ďspillsí to the next line through either a Wrap or New
Line operation. This is the page paradigm which is derived from the design of
western books. It is strange that the normal aspect ratio of a PC monitor,
however, is not page formatted at all. A PC monitor is actually wider in its
display than it is tall. Some LCD displays are sold with an option that allows
the screen to be rotated for more natural flow when working with the page
paradigm but these are not all that common on the market.
With todayís trendy option to purchase Wide Aspect monitors,
desktop application management can mean the ability to run two applications
side by side or to allow that extra margin area to be taken up by ancillary
toolbars, sidebars, etc. and the value of the page paradigm is completely
ignored. Or, when used as designed, Wide Aspect monitors offer a nice single
application view for video playback with the proper aspect ratio for
edge-to-edge display of a standard movie.
Taken one step further, we can start to see the difference between
information flow and the flow of understanding information by examining the
standard display limits of spreadsheets. IEEE holds this standard which defines
the common spreadsheet limits to be 255 columns by 65,535 rows (8 bit width X
16 bit height).† Itís true, too, that we tend to have trouble considering even
7 properties (columns) of a single entity (a row) and that considering 255
properties tends to make us look for only those aspects of an item which
directly concern us at the moment. But when it comes to considering the
entities themselves (the columns), we tend to start comparing those entities
without directly evaluating all their associated properties.
When we watch videos, then, the horizontal aspect becomes
the most awesome part of the view. Width equals wonder and offers the
opportunity for creative media producers to introduce subtleties to add
interest to the presentation.
To complete the circle, itís that difference which drives
the common PowerPoint presentation to normally be delivered with a horizon
dominant style and to present the sequential parts as new pages rather than a
These three different activities; productivity, analysis and
viewing, make the standard tools for desktop application management fall short since
none of the methods currently in use quickly adapt to whatever mode of
computational activity you are currently engaged in.
Traditional Desktop Management Techniques
There are a variety of methods in the market place for
handling the Ďstateí of a Window. Windows users are familiar with things like
the Systray, Minimize, Maximize, Restore, the Taskbar, etc. Essentially,
applications can be set to show only a status message or an icon by which a
user can control the behavior of the application (Systray) or they can be
sized, minimized to the Taskbar, Restored or Maximized. Letís consider these to
be the basic methods for managing running applications on a desktop.
In Unix X Windows displays, a common device missing in the
Microsoft approach is the idea of Virtual Desktops in which an application can
be sent to another desktop which can in turn be accessed by clicking that
desktops quadrant in a miniature desktop map. This tool is handy but it is also
designed on the assumption that you have less desktop real estate than you
Another mechanism offered to deal with limited real estate
is the ĎRoll-Upí. This was also the common form of application minimizing in
Macintosh operating systems prior to OS X Öwhich brings us to the most recent
and most amusing desktop management tool in common use Ė the application dock.
In OS X, the common launch pad for applications is the
Finder (as opposed to the Windows Explorer interface). The corollary to the
Windows Start button is the Dock. The dock contains shortcuts to the most
important applications or your favorite applications. Similar to Windowís
minimizing to the taskbar, minimizing an application in OS X sends the
application to the Dock where it sits between the docked application shortcuts
and the trash can. The amusing part of the dock is the ĎBounceí feature; hover
the mouse over an icon in the Dock and that icon swells, making it easier to
position the mouse to start the application with a click(in theory).
What all these approaches lack is their design preference
for where and how a running application gets minimized. For instance, when Iím
running a video, I want it full screen when Iím viewing at all times except when Iím deliberately setting up a noise environment to parallel whatever work
Iím doing at the moment. If Iím reading a web site, I tend to set the browser
to show me 10-14 words horizontally in the area of content Iím currently
reading. The implication is that sidebars are useful only for navigating,
leaving comments or being annoyed by advertising. Web site designers, take a
note; If you try to use a left and a right sidebar for the same identical
purpose on a single page, most of us get annoyed.
When I run across a link of interest, my behavior has been
modified by some really poor web authoring practices out there so I tend to
right click and ask for that link to be displayed in a new browser or a new tab
(for the FireFox user). What I wind up with is either a very, very overloaded
instance of FireFox or, if Iím using Internet Explorer, a stack of IE
placeholders in the taskbar as deep as my arm is long. Just freakiní ugly. I do
all this just so I can safely read the original page as deeply as my interest
carries me without losing track of it in a series of back navigations, never
sure if Iíll ever find that page again.
What Scalable Fabric Offers
Itís a funny name. It kind of implies that you could go up
to the fabric store, buy a yard of denim and, with time, stretch that fabric in
a variety of ways to allow me to make new blue jeans as needed for the rest of
my life. Microsoftís Scalable Fabric isnít quite that useful. But it does do a
wonderful job of providing a quick way to manage your desktop based on how you
tend to work without modifying how each application is set up.
Once installed and running, Scalable Fabric minimizes itself
to the Systray, appearing to be a stretched Microsoft Windows flag.
Right clicking on the application exposes its menu. To set
up the Boundary area, the edges of which define the behavior of windows you
minimize outside that boundary, choose Show Boundaries.
The blue box describes the application boundary. With this
boundary area set, applications minimized to the Desktop (thatís right, to the
Desktop!!) get smaller the farther away from the boundary.
The boundary I described is a box located in the upper left
corner of the display. As you can see, minimized applications are sized
relative to their distance from the edge of the boundary. Applications farther
away from the boundary are smaller. In addition, you can group these minimized
applications together so that a single click can restore all these grouped
applications to their former sizes and positions on the screen. For instance,
clicking the yellow New Task group, restores this application stack.
There are a number of options you can configure with
Scalable Fabric and some of them will demonstrate why this tool is not yet in
production on Windows systems (loss of context sensitivity in the Systray, for
example). Some of the options definitely need to be turned off. For instance,
the sound bites associated with a minimize event can get tiresome (hey, itís a
tech demo, right?) and, if you have dogs, the Restore event will have them all
coming to attention because of the shrill whistle sound.
The key detail to concentrate on, however, is that by quick
adjustment of the boundary area, you can define for yourself a natural area of
the desktop youíd normally sacrifice to unused white space as an area in which
to group and minimize applications. This reduces Taskbar clutter and greatly
improves the usability of the desktop area.
While I havenít seen the Scalable Fabric feature in any
other OS shell to date, including the Vista Consumer preview, now that I have
seen it, itís hard to imagine not having it at hand to better manage the stack
of applications I normally have running. And Iíd certainly be much more
interested in seeing this approach delivered in forthcoming Microsoft products
than the Office Ribbon or the stylishness of Vistaís Aero Glass interfaces.