Why a Dock Replacement?

It’s been just over 6 months since uBar 2 was released on July 1st, 2014. The feedback has been tremendous, with hundreds of users emailing me ideas for features and improvements. Over the last 6 months, there have been 42 releases of uBar, most of which is the result of user feedback (see the release notes).

That said, I’d like to address an interesting question – that is, the question of why replace the Dock?

The first thing I’d like to do is stipulate that the Apple Dock doesn’t absolutely need to be replaced. It’s the quintessential Apple product – it works for most people, most of the time. The Dock is simple and elegant.

The Dock originated with NeXTSTEP, which is the predecessor to OS X. When Apple began transforming NeXTSTEP (by the OpenStep) into Mac OS X, they started by giving it the classic Platinum Mac OS UI, and removed the NeXTSTEP Dock (the codename for this project was Rhapsody). It was only when Apple decided to drop the classic Platinum UI for the new Aqua UI that Apple brought back the Dock, albeit Aqua-fied. This is the Dock that ended up in Mac OS X, and lives on today as the OS X Dock.

When watching Steve Jobs reveal Mac OS X and Aqua at MacWorld 2000 San Francisco, one can’t help but notice how proud he was of it. Aqua did a terrific job of creating excitement around the new Mac OS X. It showed what the new OS was capable of. Jobs demonstrated the Genie effect in slow-motion, showing us how windows minimized into the Dock with beautiful animation. He showed us the Magnification effect, which made the icons under the cursor bigger in realtime. The Dock was the prime showpiece for Mac OS X, and it achieved it’s job at the time – it showed us what the Mac OS X windowserver was capable of.

It wasn’t without controversy – John Siracusa infamously criticized the Dock for changing the size and position of every single one of it’s icons whenever something was added or removed.

Today, many users find themselves using the Scale effect rather than the genie effect – it seems snappier. The Magnification effect is used by few – while visually impressive in 2000, today it feels just like what it is – a visual gimmick. The Siracusa critique is even worse when applied to this effect. I don’t doubt that some use it, perhaps because after the Dock has too many icons, they start becoming very small, and the red application badges that tell you how many unread emails you have become illegible.

Of course the Dock didn’t go without upgrades. Spaces and Exposé (both are now rolled-into Mission Control) were added to help manage windows and see them visually. That said, the Siracusa critique looms over Exposé as well, since it dynamically lays out windows visually and in arbitrary positions.

The Dock especially made sense 15 years ago when most families shared a single computer with a single user account. Mac OS 9 had user accounts tacked-on, but it took years for them to be in mainstream use. You could sit in front of any Mac, and immediately be able to use the Dock. Today if you’re sitting in front of a computer it is probably either yours or under your own user account. The standardization of the Dock is no longer a useful trade-off against it’s lack of customizability.

Fundamentally, the reason for a Dock replacement is that the Dock doesn’t scale (metaphorically speaking).

The Dock doesn’t handle windows particularly well – it is primarily an application switcher. It is limited to a single row, and so once a certain number of applications are running or windows have been minimized, it’s icons become minuscule, and the application badges illegible.

Machines today have enough RAM to run dozens of Applications and even more windows at a time – numbers that would have grounded the computers of 15 years ago to a screeching halt. The Dock is simply not designed to handle this. One feature Jobs presented back in 2000 that never made it into the official Mac OS X release was the “Single Application Mode” – when enabled, the Dock would hide all the applications except for the front-most application. It as meant to help new users. Incidentally this feature is in uBar (as a distraction-free mode for pro users), but the point is that the Dock was constructed with this sort of simplicity in mind. It was never meant to scale to the way many pro users use today’s Macs, which are utter powerhouses compared to the G3s of 2000.

uBar can be configured as a dock, or a task bar. When application titles are disabled and window grouping is set to always, it acts like a dock. Turn those options on, and it acts like a task bar. The uBar menu can be customized to include commonly used items, or disabled all-together. A clock area can provide the time and a hover-calendar, or disabled as well. It can be pinned to both sides, making it span the screen, or pinned to either corner, or none, making it centred like the Apple Dock. It can be set to look like the system menu bar (either in light or dark mode in Yosemite), or a custom theme where you select the colours and opacity you want. There’s even a Now Playing theme that dynamically uses iTunes album art. The point is that uBar features real customizability – it’s your user account, so there isn’t any reason not to customize your application switcher to your taste and needs.

One uBar feature that is particularly well received by users is the Activity Mode. When holding the Control key, the application titles turn into CPU and RAM usage indicators. Another is that launching applications have white hatched backgrounds, while unresponsive applications have red hatched backgrounds, which makes spotting them easy. These are all innovations that save time for power users.

Sure, it’s not for everyone. The Apple Dock is for everyone, in the sense that a Medium size shirt is for everyone. Many people are perfectly happy with the Apple Dock, and have been using it for over a decade with no trouble.

uBar is for the others. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.

Replacing the Dock may seem crazy, but it’s changing the way thousands of Mac users use their Macs.

I’m excited to think about how many more Mac users will be using uBar in 2015. uBar has an awesome roadmap ahead of it.