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Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Dock 1.6

Mac OS X: Return of the Dock

In 2001, Mac OS X did away with the previous overlapping conventions of the classic Mac OS to deliver a single, simple mechanism for launching apps, storing minimized open windows out of the way, and providing fast access to files and folders. It took its name from NeXT's Dock, but added new functionality by combining the NeXT Dock with the NeXT Shelf; rather than having a limited amount of Shelf space within Finder windows, the Dock gave users an obvious location for dropping anything: apps, files, folders, and open windows: the right end of the new Dock.

The new Dock also demonstrated the graphics prowess of Mac OS X's new Quartz rendering engine by drawing Dock icons with alpha channel transparency, rather than as a series of opaque, square boxes as NeXTSTEP did. Each icon also dynamically and smoothly scales in size along with the Dock. Apple also introduced the magnify effect, which allowed users to shrink the Dock down to a small strip, but blow up icons to a larger size when they are moused-over. Minimized windows animate into the Dock with a genie effect, and icons bounce to indicate that the application demands your attention. Users can also rearrange Dock items using drag-and-drop, dropping new items into it, and dragging unwanted items out. All of these conventions make the Dock highly customizable and information rich, despite being very simple and easy to use.

Like the NeXT Dock, currently running applications in the Mac OS X Dock were tagged with a live indicator (but with a black triangle, rather than an ellipsis), and could be badged by the running application (such as how Mail and iChat get a red badged number indicating new messages). Successive versions of the Dock introduced dockling menus, which allowed users to access functions of apps in the Dock from a popup menu. For example, iTunes' Dock icon allows users to skip the the next song, and iChat's Dock icon lets users set their online status.

Anticipating Vista, the minimized windows in the Dock depict a scaled down version of their contents; a minimized playing movie will even continue to play in its way down into the Dock. With its half decade lead on Windows, the Mac OS X Dock hasn't visibly changed dramatically over the last six years. The translucent Dock background quickly migrated from a ribbed plastic look in the early 10.0 to 10.1 versions (below top) to become a more plainly subtle translucent strip in 10.2 Jaguar through 10.4 Tiger (below bottom). Apple also made it easier for users to hide the Dock, or put the Dock on either side of the screen, functions that were always there but not previously exposed in Dock preferences.

Mac OS X Leopard Dock

Mac OS X Leopard Dock

The biggest change related to the Dock in the last several years wasn't even in the Dock, but rather in the new task switcher in Tiger; it painted enlarged versions of the Dock's application icons in prominent view in the center of the screen when using Alt+Tab to jump between applications.

The New Dock in Mac OS X Leopard

It's therefore notable that Leopard sports an entirely new Dock appearance, which now presents its icons as three dimensional objects sitting on a translucent glass shelf, rather than flat objects stuck in a translucent ribbon of icon flypaper. Dock icons now cast a reflection on the Dock (as do other windows on the screen, and even the background image), as well as casting a shadow behind them. The combination of the reflection and the shadow contribute to their dimensional appearance.

Mac OS X Leopard Dock

The black triangle denoting running applications has been replaced with a more subtle indicator which looks like a glowing blue LED. It's nearly invisible unless you look for it, at which point it is quite obvious. The reflections, shadows, curving texture, indicator lights, and translucency all add up to a new sort of Dock that aspires to show off the user-selected background and add visual interest; one might also complain that it looks busy. I found the new Dock both familiar and fresh. It only looks wrong when you obsess over its details. Once you start looking for reasons to be irritated, you can certainly find all sorts of things that are objectionable; the harder you strain on its details, the more irritating they are. Fortunately, I don't have time to get upset about which way a shadow falls, so I can't complain about nausea and vertigo as some have.

Along with Leopard's translucent menu bar, the new Dock has been a sore spot for users who don't like change; there were similar complaints when Apple changed from the mess of various launchers, switchers, and window minimizers of the Classic Mac OS to using the Dock. Apple has been open to making some changes in response to feedback; it toned down the translucency of the menu bar in recent builds, and made the separator between Dock apps and its Shelf items to the right (it is invisible in the images Apple depicts in its Leopard preview website, such as the image above) more prominent in new builds of the Leopard Dock (A new 'highway stripe' separates the Dock's applications from files, folders, and minimized windows in the image below). Apple didn't go so far as to do away with the new dimensional Dock entirely, however.

Mac OS X Leopard Dock

The biggest complaints have been that icons in the new Dock sometimes appear to cast multiple shadows (since many icons already include a shadow), and that it looks silly when used on either side of the screen vertically; that's because the more dimensional icons appear to hang in space next to the Dock, rather than seeming to rest on it or float above it as they do in its default bottom position. Of course, if it bothers you that the Docks' icons float in space with no physical structure holding them up when it is positioned vertically, how did you ever survive the logical conundrum of desktop icons floating in space against the Mac desktop, as they have for decades? The other problem inherent with a vertical Dock is that the wide screens of Apple's laptops, iMacs, and other displays can't physically fit in as many icons in a vertical Dock compared to a Dock in the default position along the bottom.

Stacks Take Back the Dock

Many Mac users drop every application they are likely to ever use in the Dock, resulting in a strip of icons that consumes most of the width of their display and forcing individual icons to be drawn smaller. Users with lots of open windows are also likely to minimize them, leaving the Dock burdened on both ends with too many icons to manage. This clouds the original idea of the Dock, which is to present lots of useful information in a simple context. There are two new major features of Leopard that help clean out the Dock and make it more usable.

The first is Stacks. Drag a folder to the Dock and it becomes a Stack. Its icon changes from the folder's native icon to instead represent the collection of its contents. So far, that's only a distraction, as the Stack icons look a bit messy and cluttered (as stacks of stuff tend to do).

The real benefit comes from clicking on the Stack. If there are about ten items or less, they fan out in to an arc, like a magician's cards (below left). Click on an item (any item) to launch it, or in the case of a folder, to open it in the Finder. If there are lots of items in the Stack, they pop up into a translucent window area with a grid of icons that can be selected (below right). This makes each Stack item equivalent to a Dock annex.

Apple drops three Stacks in the Dock by default: Applications, Documents, and a new Downloads folder Stack. Any folder or selection of items dragged into the Dock will also become a new Stack, with identical behaviors to those described below. Right-click on a Stack to pop up a menu of options. Among them is the option to use a Fan or Grid style display, or to allow the system to choose which to do automatically based on the number of items in the Stack. You can also set the display order of Stack items to be alphabetical by name; by date added, created, or modified; or sorted by kind.

Mac OS X Leopard Dock

On page 3: The Applications Stack; The Documents Stack; The Downloads Stack; and The Lean, Clean New Dock