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Journal The_Noid's Journal: Multitasking in Desktop Environments 1

The last few months there has been a big uproar about desktop environments. Gnome3 completely rethinking the desktop and Ubuntu making Unity no longer an option. My biggest problem with many of the new desktop environments is that they use the wrong definition of multitasking, or to be more precise, the wrong definition of "task".

It seems the DEs see any use of multiple windows as multitasking.

For me, a task can use multiple windows of different programs. Different tasks can use different windows of the same program. For example:

Task: Programming. Windows:

  • Netbeans
  • Browser (for documentation)
  • Terminal
  • File manager

Task: Photo managing Windows:

  • Browser
  • File manager
  • Gimp
  • Terminal

When I'm programming I need to be able to quickly switch between the windows belonging to the programming task. That switching should require as little cognitive load as possible, so I do not lose momentum in what I'm doing. Programming mosty only uses 1 browser window, so when I'm programming and my mind goes "get browser" it should be easy to get to that one window associated with that task.

Gnome 2 did this perfectly. I could put all windows of a task on the same virtual desktop and the taskbar would only show those windows, Alt-Tab would priorise those windows and show nice big clear icons. As a result I could switch windows within the task with little tought. Switching between tasks was just a matter of switching to a different desktop.

When I want to switch to a different window within a task I do not want to see a list of all windows of all tasks. Identifying the correct window in that list is a heavy cognitive task since for instance all terminal windows look the same. Grouping windows of the same program is equally bad for the same reason.

Alt-Tab should show icons, not windows. When my mind goes "get browser" it can easily pick the colorfull chrome icon out of the list, but since windows tend to look all the same, picking the right one out of an alt-tab list of window shots is hard work for the mind.

Windows 7 is also horrible in this respect. It not only has no multiple desktops, it groups together windows of the same program (instead of the same task) and it has only one taskbar for multiple monitors, meaning you can't even switch to "that browser window on the right monitor" because all browser windows are in the same list and that list is on the other monitor.

For this reason I've been reluctant to upgrade from the last Ubuntu that had Gnome 2. Does Mint do the multitasking right? XFCE does.

Proper multitasking support might not be beginner friendly, but no-one is a beginner for long.

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Multitasking in Desktop Environments

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  • I like your thinking and use multiple desktops in Window Maker the same way, but I do have to say that I'm rather in favor of windows 7's screenshot icons, at least for most cases. In XP I'd have to repeatedly alt-tab through multiple putty icons to figure out which one I wanted (and pulling one up moves its icon to the front of the list leading to nothing but rage when I want to cycle through all the windows). Now, I set each server to a slightly different background shade and can pick it out of the line

Nondeterminism means never having to say you are wrong.