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Is There a Solution for Focus-Hungry Apps? 131

Posted by Cliff
from the well-behaved-windows dept.
V.Toulias asks: "Over the past few years, I have seen a rise in the percentage of applications installed in my Windows box that do not ask nicely for my attention but force themselves into view when they think they have something important to tell me. Mail clients that pop-up into view when a new email is sent or received, instant messengers that pop up when a new message arrives, browser pop-ups that... pop-up even though the page is loading in a 'background window', informational OS messages, It-seems-that-you're-writing-a-letter app helpers, security warnings and the list goes on. It doesn't take a science study to realize the adverse effects that this phenomenon is causing on your productivity and concentration. So, apart from the obvious suggestion of switching OS, is there any other solution to this disturbing trend?"
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Is There a Solution for Focus-Hungry Apps?

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  • The Options Menu (Score:5, Informative)

    by toleraen (831634) on Friday March 31, 2006 @05:32PM (#15037306)
    Most applications allow you to disable many of the pop-up stuff that you're talking about right in the options menu. Outlook has it for new email. MSN I believe has this feature (I use Trillian, but Windows Messenger has that option). I've never had Firefox pop up trying to steal attention...except for update I believe. Windows security warnings can all be disabled through the control panel. You can disable Clippy. Just look through the options menu. It's there, somewhere. If there isn't an option anywhere to disable it...google that specific app. There's probably a registry key you can mess with.
    • There's a full set of instructions for getting rid of Clippy here at annoyances.org. [annoyances.org]
    • The update one for firefox is SO bad.

      Last time I had an update it popped up with the default action set to Update.
      It grabbed the focus whilst I was typing a comment like this and upgraded without my explicit consent.

      I was VERY annoyed with that action.

      The browser should be able to check for updates on startup only (I want the updates and to be told about them, just not in the middle of a session)
      • The browser should be able to check for updates on startup only (I want the updates and to be told about them, just not in the middle of a session)

        I'm not sure if that, on its own, would be a good solution. What about those of us who rarely restart Firefox? Yes -- we exist :). I restart Firefox once a week at most (it doesn't seem to leak memory as badly on Mac OS X as I hear it does on other platforms, and I have gobs of RAM installed :) ), and there are probably times where two weeks or more have pa

        • I understand exactly what you mean, and thats why I want the option to do it.
          Think about this though, how many times do you click a URL from outside, or from an email or other application firing up an instance of a browser.
          Those times you are expected to not be typing and could be considered as startup, however just popping whilst I am sitting on a page is the wrong thing to do.
          • Think about this though, how many times do you click a URL from outside, or from an email or other application firing up an instance of a browser.

            I can honestly say: never. The web browser tends to be the first thing I load when I log into my system (and as I'm the only user of the system, I virtually never log out, unless it is either to reboot the machine, or to force FileVault to recover free space in my home directory, both of which are extremely rare. Otherwise I put my system to sleep when I'm no

    • All apps have a control that will stop them from popping up. If it's not accessible in the GUI options, it might be in an INI file or a registry entry like you say.

      If not, check under Control Panel --> Add/Remove Programs. You'll find that by removing offensive software from your system, your computing experience will be a lot more pleasurable.

  • Power toys (Score:5, Informative)

    by Nightspirit (846159) on Friday March 31, 2006 @05:33PM (#15037318)
    Go to the microsoft website and download the power toys, I believe the program is called Tweak UI. Here you can adjust focus settings and get rid of that stupid yellow balloon that keeps popping up.
    • Yes. The Tweak UI tool will allow you to click a setting that offers to prevent applications from stealing focus, but I'm not sure what they think that's doing.

      The problem, really, is that Windows doesn't really have a window manager, which is why virtual desktop tools and focus settings pretty much end up being ugly hacks.

    • What, you believe that changing focus settings in TweakUI actually does anything useful? How I wish I still was that naive. >_>
      • psst... if you're too ignorant to realise either how to use TweakUI or what the meaning of "useful" is, then you shouldn't be posting on /.

      • Funny, I think that changing the focus settings in TweakUI does something useful because.. uhm.. it DOES. Since I set it up months ago, I have not had an inactive app wrest the focus away from the active one. Not even once. Instead, the app that wants attention just blinks in the taskbar.

        If it is not working for you, then you have either not configured it right, or there is something more seriously wrong with your OS.
    • Speaking of the TweakUI powertool, here's my problem: I use TweakUI to set focus-follows-mouse behaviour in Windows. That way I can have a VNC session cast from a Linux open full-screen on one monitor. With click-to-focus, I'd have to click twice to get focus on a window inside the VNC session: once to get VNC the focus, and once to get the window on my X desktop the focus. With focus-follows-mouse, Windows focus follows the mouse into VNC, and X focus follows the mouse into xterm.

      The problem is this:
      • Same experience here. My main annoyance is VS.NET, which brings itself forward when it gains focus. I have acquired a habit of moving the mouse to where an app window is going to pop up when I do compile-run so that VS doesn't get focus.

        As for the context menu problem, it's an annoyance, but I've always been able to get them to work properly by never moving the mouse out of the context menu. With Combo dropdowns (depending on the app), after clicking the arrow, I have to move directly down to the drop do
  • If you have a Linux box either with X or without to connect to, then do it (install X on the Windows box first, if necessary). X programs tend to work much nicer.

    Or, just don't use X at all. Install a program like screen to manage terminal applications, and then use them instead.

    You can also install Cygwin and use it. There are replacements for nearly everything.

    mutt/pine for email
    lynx/w3m for web
    emacs/vim for editing
    etc.

    Much nicer and faster, in my opinion.
    • ...sure, we'll do that at work, just as soon as we can find a Lotus Notes implementation in Emacs (oh wait, the Emacs OS does groupware, doesn't it?).

      Seriously, if you think for a minute any even semi-normal person is going to browse the web with Lynx, you're crazy. Nobody works out of a mainframe session anymore; nobody has login access solely on beefy Unix boxes. 95% of the world uses Windows; some 80% or so use IE. The reality is that except for a very few exceptions, the world moved beyond the life l
  • by hal2814 (725639) on Friday March 31, 2006 @05:39PM (#15037382)
    The single most annoying thing to me as far as GUIs on any system is when I'm trying to type or click something and some self-important GUI app steals my focus and pops up on top of what I'm working on. I'd be happy with a GUI system that would let me replace SetFocus (or whatever they call the equivalent) with a big fat no-op.

    The second thing I'd like to do is disable those stupid XP security warnings the poster talks about.

    So far, I haven't been able to find a way to do either.
  • What really got me lately was playing older apps, in this case Lucasart's Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, that can't recover from a minimise to desktop (eg, you can't click back onto them and resume gameplay). I'd be midway through assaulting the Imperal Construction Yards when Windows Update would popup, stealing focus to tell me to restart. 20 minutes later, same story. Man, if Microsoft existed during the Rebellion, we'd all be under the thumb of the Empire.
    • Can you ALT+TAB to them instead?
    • If that Windows Update crap bothers you again in the future, run the following command (Start->Run):
      sc stop wuauserv
      Unlike trying to close the process with task manager, this kills the service that's generating that process, and it doesn't come back until you use "sc start wuauserv" or restart your computer.
    • HAHAHA! I remember playing WarCraft II and having the AV software (Dr Solomon, IIRC) popup for a scan... grrr!!!

  • two monitors (Score:5, Insightful)

    by russellh (547685) on Friday March 31, 2006 @05:41PM (#15037397) Homepage
    Use two monitors, and do your real work on the secondary screen.

    I assume you're talking about Windows. This happens on the Mac to some extent, usually when launching apps - eg when I launch Mail then switch back to the app I was using, of course, new windows in Mail throw themselves on the top. This was not a problem in classic Mac OS which enforced application level window layers, which - to be perfectly honest - I prefer for this very reason.

    But I've found two monitors do the trick.
    • To a large extent, I agree with you. If you actually understand your computer and know what's going on, having each app and it's windows "compartmentalized" like this can be a very useful thing. Of course, I also like being able to have two windows from different apps open next to each other with a slew of other windows belonging to different apps behind them. It'd be nice if this were an advanced-user feature that could be toggled on or off.
    • Re:two monitors (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      > This happens on the Mac to some extent, usually when launching apps - eg when I launch Mail then switch back to the app I was using, of course, new windows in Mail throw themselves on the top

      And this is a pity because it was not happening on NeXTstep. An application that finished launching was automatically put into focus UNLESS the user set the focus to any other app during the launch time (because I think Dock.app was getting the focus during hte launch).

      App stealing focus is one of the most irritati
    • Use one monitor, and use a window managing system that allows virtual desktops (I like Windowmaker, personally). Then tell your window manager to keep new windows in the same desktop as their parent, and notify you of their existence via the appropriate mechanism (system tray, zenity-like translucent no-focus popup, scrolling OSD, etc.)

      Focus stealing is one of the reasons I find the Windows GUI essentially unusable.

      • I liked the virtual desktop setup that I had back in about 1995 I think. was it fvwm? Nothing since then has worked for me, including (especially) the various ones for OS 9 and X. I'm too much of a visual guy to hide stuff too much though, and as much as I'd hate to admit it, I think virtual desktops would work better for me with animated switching between them that gave a sense of space.
        • I'm too much of a visual guy to hide stuff too much though, and as much as I'd hate to admit it, I think virtual desktops would work better for me with animated switching between them that gave a sense of space.

          I don't see any shame in admitting that. Try Enlightenment; they have very "tactile" switching.

    • I never have this problem in OSX Mail. I just close the window when I'm done reading my current mail. The app is still running in the background, but there is no window to pop up. I get a audible ding when new mail arrives. Opening up a new window is instant.

      This isn't like Outlook, where you have to keep it running minimized because it takes so damned long to start, and there's no other way to alert you to new mail.
      • I happen to be just terrible at managing my email. hundreds of emails in my inbox, and frequently quit Mail with email message windows open. So I could solve this specific problem with better user habits, it's true. Though the general point of windows of background apps barging in on my quality time in another application still happens. But not nearly to the extent the OP describes.
    • Use two monitors, and do your real work on the secondary screen. ... But I've found two monitors do the trick.

      I think you speaketh s**t, my friend. I have two monitors on my XP workstation at work (complete with Tweak UI). Logging in when I arrive I'll be in the midst of typing my Outlook password on one screen while RDP windows pop-up on the other (so far, so good: focus stays where it should), but the first RDP window to get a login prompt from a remote server steals focus from the Outlook login promp

    • I don't understand how two monitors solves the problem. I have two monitors and I have to put up with applications stealing focus all the time. Start up Thunderbird or Firefox and go work on something else while they're loading. 30 seconds later, boom, there goes half a sentence into the Location bar.

      Allow me to agree with everyone who thinks that applications stealing focus (on launch, on completion of a task, really any time except when they're about to delete your entire hard drive) is hateful. It's d

  • part from the obvious suggestion of switching OS, is there any other solution to this disturbing trend?

    Just think how much nicer life would be without a computer.

    1. No pesky RIAA lawsuits.
    2. No broadband bill.
    3. No losing your life savings to pesky phishers.
    4. No worrying about hackers stealing you megahertz.

    and yes,

    No annoying pop-ups.

    • Just think how much nicer life would be without a computer.

      1. No pesky RIAA lawsuits.
      2. No broadband bill.
      3. No losing your life savings to pesky phishers.
      4. No worrying about hackers stealing you megahertz.

      and yes,

      No annoying pop-ups.

      No e-mail
      No pr0n (well, less pr0n)
      No web
      No google to resolve all factual queries and read news
      No real-time stock quotes
      No internet banking
      No way to make my MP3s
      No way to learn about Snakes On a Plane [google.ca]
      No internet dating

      As much of a pest computers can occasionally be, the sheer n

  • For years I refused to switch from ICQ to IM just because of this abhorrent behavior (that, and how it inserted shortcuts in 10 or 15 different places). Eventually, all my friends migrated to IM and I didn't have much of a choice. To this day, the forced popup windows bug the hell out of me, but I can get around it with 3rd party clients.
    • For years I refused to switch from ICQ to IM just because of this abhorrent behavior (that, and how it inserted shortcuts in 10 or 15 different places). Eventually, all my friends migrated to IM and I didn't have much of a choice. To this day, the forced popup windows bug the hell out of me, but I can get around it with 3rd party clients.

      Try Gaim [sourceforge.net]. It's an open source client that works on the aim network.

  • Use OSS software and take out all the popup features.

    That said, I don't have that problem except for the occasional webpage that forces a new browser window in a way that adblock, noscript and Firefox can't stop (don't ask, I don't know). Everything on my Linux box stays nicely hidden except when I need it!
    • by Cybrr (535845)
      #2: Tog should get a UPS,
      #4: pay more attention to what settings he's clicking,
      #5: and name his files better if sorting is such an issue.

      The others are harder to fix yourself.

      I'd put focus stealing on #1 due to its frequency of harm.
  • I understand that you wanted solutions that don't involve switching your OS, but why not entertain some of those, as well? It must not be quite annoying enough to you yet if you won't consider the one move that could probably fix the problem. On Mac OS X it is just about impossible to have this problem. I can't recall a single app off the top of my head that has ever stolen the focus from me since I switched platforms a couple years ago. (that doesn't mean it hasn't happened - but at the least it is so
    • Not to mention, KDE's window manager has active focus-stealing prevention. Linux apps can misbehave, but the WM will slap them down and refuse to comply.

      It really does matter if you "own" the OS or merely "rent" it.
    • OSX apps are somewhat better about this than Windows ones, it's true, but OSX isn't as good as X11 in this area. With focus follows mouse enabled in a good window manager, this simply does not happen in X. Nor have I ever run across a modal or system modal dialog in X -- something that is still shows up enough to be annoying in OSX.

      A lot of the worst of it can be resolved through settings in various programs -- if you use something like GAIM for instant messaging and beat outlook into submission your desk

  • Upgrade to linux and/or open source software which rarely behaves so rudely and often has features to prevent others from doing so.

    This isn't just a cop-out answer; I'm quite serious. You are essentially complaining about lack of control over what your software does. Well, take control of it!

  • The one that bugs me the most is when an application errors during launch and the error window is tucked away behind the stalled splashscreen window-that-isn't-really-a-window. Depending on the app and depending on what type of error it is, you can sometimes alt-tab to the error message (cos it sometimes doesn't get an icon in the taskbar) or you usually just have to kill it in the task manager. Ugh!
    • Acrobat does that quite often. You open a PDF in a tab, and go on to other tabs, and then Acrobat's "Hello! I am acrobat" dialog box gets put under all of your other windows, sometimes freezing the browser, but definitly freezing acrobat.

      That is really annoying, especially when the dialog box contains absolutly no useful information.
      • One of the reasons why I consider splash screens a GUI design flaw. If the window caption and GUI is not enough to tell people which program they just started the problem probably doesn't lie within the program.
      • try foxit reader, it's much better than acrobat i have been using it for months with no problems at all and much faster loading of PDFs

        it also doesn't try to register as a browser plugin leaving you with two sets of toolbars and a notecard's worth of space to read your PDF.
  • Use FVWM (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by linuxkrn (635044)
    In FVWM you can apply "GrabFocusOff" style to those nasty apps. Then you don't have to worry. I did this with gaim so if it wanted to popup a disconnect or new im window it wouldn't steal my focus.

    • Why on earth is this modded offtopic? Just some random loser with a hard-on for Linux? Guess it's time to play metamod keno again.
  • firefox 1.5 shows those "cannot find server" messages in the tab that's trying to load the page (a huge improvement)

    gaim opens new IM conversations in a new tab

    clippy is not a feature of open office (although the little lightbulb clipart popup thing is both ugly and a little annoying)

    outlook just puts a little letter icon next to my clock when i get an email
  • You can disable the security warnings in Windows XP without using TweakUI/PowerToys.

    This applies to Service Pack 2, I believe:
    In Control Panel -> Security Center, in the left-hand panel labeled "Resources", click the option labeled "Change the way Security Center alerts me". In the dialog box that opens, uncheck all the options.
  • by aminorex (141494) on Friday March 31, 2006 @06:37PM (#15037850) Homepage Journal
    It's not just an annoyance, it's a bug. For example, when I'm executing a complex keyboard operation, and a dialog pops up and steals my focus, a bunch of work may have been destroyed. It's a security issue as well. When I'm filling in a password (or having one filled in for me by automation), and an instant messenger suddenly pops up, taking those keystrokes, its a sordid tale of woe. No alert should ever take focus unless it's of the "core meltdown, imminent mass casualties" variety.

    One could write an app which monitors keystrokes and tracks focus, which calculates focus independently of the window manager, and detects any discrepancies, and corrects them as soon as possible, but it will still leak events sometimes, inevitably, unless it acts as a translation filter and checks at every event for correct focus.

    • for just that reason i have gaim text replacement to auto-star out my credit card number and various passwords, if someone has user level access with full credentials in order to read my NTFS encrypted %user%\.gaim\ directory i am pretty much pwned anyways, and i have almost entered sensative info into a chat, which is what caused me to implement this in the first place
  • I hate it when they have something important to say (quite rare) and then they dissappear. Then I have to go into the event log and see what it said.
    • Best is in mid-password... Here I am clacking away, and hit enter, just in time to notice that no password has been entered, and some window just dissapeared on my enter stroke... what was that, a benevolent warning message or did I just IM some random guy from egypt my password? I'll never know.
  • by cunkel (111089) on Friday March 31, 2006 @07:33PM (#15038196)
    The popups and focus stealing are a symptom of a larger problem: application authors assume you bought a computer just to run their application.

    • You bought a computer just so that you could run AIM, so of course it should notify you loudly whenever something "interesting" happens.

    • You bought a computer just so that you could run MS Office, so of course it should hang around in memory all the time so that it will start faster.

    • You bought a computer just so that you could run Java applets, so of course there should be a program running all the time that checks for updates to the Java runtime. Also there should be a little coffee cup in the tray, right?

    • You bought a computer just so you could read PDFs, so Adobe Reader ought to install icons on your desktop, and in the root of the start menu. Never mind that you always open a PDF by double clicking on it, or automatically inside a web browser, and so you will never actually open Adobe Reader directly.

    • You bought a computer just so that you have something to scan for viruses, so of course McAfee virus scanner better tell you when it updates its virus definitions.

    ...didn't you?
    • The popups and focus stealing are a symptom of a larger problem: application authors assume you bought a computer just to run their application.

      That's not the real problem, though. App writers shouldn't be responsible for managing window focus, period. Window managers should take some fucking responsibility for what's going on and give users the ability to choose how focus works system-wide, as well as allowing per-application customization.

      Growl [growl.info] does something similar (but just for notifications) on t

  • This seems to be the perfect place to ask this question: OS X is generally pretty good about this, but there are some notable exceptions. For example, I use Barebones's Textwrangler in conjunction with the FTP client Transmit. Frequently, I'll be browsing a remote FTP listing through Transmit, wish to edit some text files, and double-click them. Then, I want to continue browsing the server, all while double-clicking more text files, while Textwrangler opens them silently in the background.

    This, unfortuna
  • TweakUI's focus option is useful for preventing apps from stealing focus while you are in the middle of typing but there are times when TweakUI becomes a pain because it means you have to click to bring say a needed volume slider into focus. I recently discovered the AttachThreadInput function and now I use this to make certain controls steal the focus regardless of what TweakUI's settings are. This is the best of both worlds for a developer.
  • Pain in the bottom (Score:5, Interesting)

    by xtieburn (906792) on Friday March 31, 2006 @08:24PM (#15038537)
    Focus stealing is a royal pain in the arse. Not only in the O/S but on web pages such as dictionary.com which likes to select the whole word youve half typed in to the box so that as you continue to type you wipe out the first half.

    Anyhow a couple of points.

    1. TweakUI does _not_ stop focus stealing. It tries to help but there are many apps and messages that slip through.
    2. Swapping application is _not_ always viable. Either the alternative will cost a lot of cash or there is no open source equivalent that doesnt have the problem just as bad.

    and a couple of opinions.

    1. Focus stealing has _no_ purpose accept possibly to stress how utterly arrogant the developer was in thinking that his program is more important than what I am doing.
    2. It _is_ an O/S issue. Im not so sure how bad it is with Linux and Mac's but Windows is a pain for it and it can cause serious problems. If your firewall or virus scanner gets an incorrect selection made because it pops up while your typing, thats a serious issue. It is no different to malicious emails and popups which MS try to stamp out. It wouldnt be hard for them to stop focus stealing altogether or even better have an option like in TweakUI only one that actually works fully.

    Despite a lot of people being a little on the self superior side about this, as if your an idiot for having the problem. I dont believe there is currently any satisfactory way to stop it. Even if the suggestions ive read did work changing apps, changing O/S, using TweakUI etc etc. Non of it should be necessary. A little tick box should suffice.

    (Maybe I have selective memory but I am fairly sure this problem is getting increasingly prevelant. I dont remeber much about Win9x doing it, I remember 2k doing it very infrequently. People really shouldnt have to put up with it at all.)
    • hmm... since a virus scanner really does sometimes have to interrupt the user, perhapse something combining the firefox focus timer to prevent ninja-clicks (window pops with button under your mouse as you click) and some sort of system to prevent accidental unwanted keyboard input, perhaps something that must be traced out with the mouse similar to the Castlevania DS seals, except made hard to screw up but impossible to accidentally complete while doing something else and not paying attention to the screen
      • since a virus scanner really does sometimes have to interrupt the user

        As the sib post said, not really. And definitely not just to tell me that it completed a scan and everything is clean, cutting me off mid-password for my email.
  • "Prevent applications from stealing focus" check box
    (taskbar icon will flash instead)

    Download TweakUI (from MSN somewhere - google for it)
    Under "General", select "Focus" in the menu-tree, top of screen is the above checkbox.

    You can also get X-windows style focus and heaps of other cutomizations.
  • ... using Windows a little as possible. I found the incessant interruptions from windows popping up at odd times totally unacceptable for doing anything that required any degree of concentration (coding, sysadmin tasks, etc.). Even if I could disable the pop-ups for, say, "a new email has arrived" -- which always had me grumbling "BFD! Email isn't a paging service!" -- there were the third-party applications that insist on popping up some darned window imploring me to upgrade or something or other. Even w

  • Ratpoison [nongnu.org] is by autists, for autists; to quote from whose founder:

    The reason you want to avoid the rodent is that when your coding while chemically modified you will want to minimize any possible distraction or break in concentration. The slightest wavering in your attention will easily explode into a ten minute setback. If you can keep yourself on-track then I find that productivity is greatly increased, and with the properly trained mindset bug density on first pass is usually drastically decreased.

  • I also have a problem with apps stealing focus... not in Windows as you would expect, but in GNOME (distro is RHEL4).

    Gaim steals focus.

    KDE has the handy "Focus stealing prevention level" slider, that you can crank up to make popups less invasive. Unfortunately, GNOME does not have this. And, for various reasons, I need to use GNOME, not KDE.

    I've played around with various settings, and the best I can find is to turn off alerts entirely in Gaim. This isn't the best solution, because it prevents me from ea

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