Thursday, May 18, 2006

Virtual Desktops

I had made a list of things to do this morning. I sat down with my iBook -- ready to go. Then I realized I needed to take care of something that I had been missing for a while: virtual desktops on Mac OS X.

I thought I'd give Mac OS X's Exposé a chance and that installing a virtual desktop manager might have prevented from fully understanding and/or appreciating Exposé.

Don't get me wrong, I think Exposé is great. But, to me, it's more of a "where's-that-window" feature than an organizational tool. In contrast, virtual desktops do allow me to truly separate my windows into "concerns". When I use virtual desktops, I usually set up as many as 10 virtual desktops: my development desktop (where I code), my "testing" desktop, my log-and-top desktop, my research desktop (Google), my email desktop, my "personal" desktop, and a few spare ones for other things that might come up but that I don't want to mix with everything else.

A few people have commented on the overkill-ness of my setup. It's definitely a new way to organize your work. If virtual desktops are meant to (poorly) emulate multiple monitors, let me ask you this: What would you do differently if you had 2, 3, 5, 10 monitors?

Virtual desktops create virtual screen real estate. As a side-effect, they give you enough space to prevent you from "managing" your windows. On each desktop you can create static spatial arrangement. Once I open, resize and position a window, I barely touch it anymore. In the same way that if you always put your stapler at the same place on your desk, you won't have to look for it and will probably be able to reach for it without even looking. For me, the keyboard shortcuts become natural extensions to mental processes (I need to check the log => 3rd desktop => Command-Option-3) -- very little conscious thought is required, it becomes automatic.

(Interesting idea: real world Exposé for the the stuff on your desk. I guess that would be a very Matrix-like effect where you would throw all your stuff in the air, the moment would freeze, you pick your stapler and everything falls back exactly where it was)

When you use Exposé, you have to make the mental effort of not only recognizing the things you are looking at (which is even harder for look-alike windows on your OS), but to track down their varying positions. After all, Exposé does have the annoying tendency to change the position of the windows it displays based on an algorithm I don't fully understand. Arguably, I shouldn't have to understand it either.

So, I guess, for me, it's not just a question of screen real-estate. It's a whole organizational system derived from spatial arrangement of different desktops and a contract with myself that the concern of a specific desktop is respected. That is, that desktop 9 is where my email "lives" and that desktop 3 has my "tail -f" log terminal, "top" terminal and root privileges terminal at their respective positions.

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