the broken desktop metaphor

There was a throw-away comment by Dan Hill in an article on Elite about the desktop metaphor and the workarounds we have to use to make it work. Now, I don’t think exposé is a work-around. I think it’s the most sophisticated window-management system I’ve ever used, it’s lovely. But it does hilight something that’s need nagging at me for a while. The Desktop.

Now, essentially, the desktop metaphor is broken. It’s not a desktop at all. It’s far too small, for a start, I’ve heard it described as the airplane seat metaphor. But the most important distinction is what’s underneath all your bits of paper. Suppose you have a real desk. Pick up all the things on it and look underneath them. What do you see? You’ve got a completely blank desk. Ok, now hide all your windows and things from your computer ‘desktop’. Got a blank desk? No? Didn’t think so.

Eventually, everyone needs a hack in their windowing system so that they can get at the desktop. Windows has ‘Minimize All’, or in extreme cases, ‘Show desktop’ (there’s a difference between these two. Try explaining the difference to a non-geek). For me, Windows always seems neatest with all windows either maximized or minimized. The fact that the only graphical way of getting at your hard disk is the ‘My Computer’ icon on the desktop means that you need to be able to get at it easily. Mac OS X 10.2 and before never had a really good solution to get at the desktop. There are various third party hacks but the only decent way I ever used was to Command-Option-Click on the desktop, or Command-Option-H with the Finder focussed. This hides everything except Finder windows. Of course, if there are Finder windows blocking your desktop, you’re stuffed. Ah, well.

Exposé solves this – one button and all your windows get out the way. Yay! Finally they’ve solved a problem Windows solved 5 years ago. (Or whenever, I don’t care).

I’m tired of working round this. I can shuffle through all of my windows with Command-Tab, but I can’t get to the desktop without moving all the windows out the way? This is an annoying special case, and I don’t like it.

New philosophy. Nothing will go on the desktop. Nothing at all. I won’t display drives on it, I won’t save files on it. I’m going to change it’s permissions so that I can’t write to it. My default download folder will be a folder in my home directory. We’ll see how long I last before I go insane.

Update – I follow this up here