Use and abuse of the Mac’s “monolithic” menu-bar has a long and proud history. Surely anyone with a Mac in the 80’s had installed SuperClock, which added a clock to the menu bar. In fact, so many people did so that Apple finally just put the feature right into the OS. And when they took it out in the Public Beta of Mac OS X, users demanded that it be returned, which it was.
But with Panther, aren’t we seriously running out of menu bar space, and aren’t we doing things on the menu bar that could and should be on the Dock?
Here’s the right side of a fairly typical Panther menu bar:
From left to right, those icons are iChat, AirPort signal strength, keyboard (so I can type in Japanese or look up unicode values), battery indicator, clock, and my user name (fast user switching is on).
If I were on an 800×600 screen, I’d probably already be in trouble, but watch what happens when I run XCode:
Clang! XCode’s huge number of menus has clobbered all my menu-bar extras! Now how am I going to look up unicode hex values or check my battery… switch to the Finder just to get my menu-bar goodies back?
Yes, I can mitigate this by turning off fast-user switching, using an analog clock, etc. But that doesn’t resolve the basic issue that the menu-bar is a fixed space. It doesn’t scroll, items on it don’t resize, so when there’s too much stuff up there, someone’s going to lose. If only there were some UI element that could scroll and resize and be nice and handy…
Oh wait, there is! The Dock! We could put these menu-bar icons on the dock, and they’d gracefully resize when there are too many. Moreover, use of color is better tolerated by the Dock, which could be used by “indicator” dock icons. For example, here are two such dock icons that give me info at a glance:
Even though my Dock is very small, I can still read these indicators easily. On the left is Fire, which shows I have two logged in buddies. If you look closely, you’ll notice two dots on the left side of the icon, indicating I’m logged into two services (Yahoo and MSN). With magnification on, I could mouse over the icon to see it more clearly. The next icon is Activity monitor, whose use of color is easily readable even at this size (but wouldn’t be if I were red-green color-blind… maybe the colors should be configurable).
Wouldn’t it be great if I could put my battery and AirPort indicators down there? Well, pre-Jaguar, I could. Earlier versions of Mac OS X had “Dock Extras” to do just this. Later versions of Mac OS X actually delete these applications, so it was only in a MacWorld article that I could find a picture of these dock-based indicators:
I find these Dock-based indicators much more convenient than their menu-based replacements. So what happened? In an Ars Technica review of 10.1, John Siracusa notes that Apple had originally been concerned with menu bar clutter in the Classic Mac OS, and retaliated by making the menu bar off limits to third party developers, which resulted in ungainly hacks, which apparently prompted Apple to offer a proper menu-bar API. I guess since then they’ve gone to town themselves, as a tour of
/Library/CoreServices/Menu Extras shows.
There’s a good argument for menu items and against Dock-based indicators: lots of users hide their Dock, so an indicator there is completely wasted. Point taken. Another is that Dock icons have to be square-ish in nature, which didn’t work particularly well for the digital clock (it’s also true that the fine lines of Apple’s clock don’t scale down very well - bigger hands would be an obvious fix).
But this may be a matter of taste and user choice. Right now, the Date & Time system preference lets me either have a menu bar clock or a floating window clock. I’d like a third option: putting it back in the Dock. I’ve gotten more used to the Dock as a useful tool, and menu-bar addiction is one Classic-ism I’m more than ready to leave behind.
Dock or menu bar? What’s your preference?