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Friday, October 22, 2004

The Amazing Springing Document concept

Computer desktops centre around variations on the format pioneered by Xerox decades ago, using the analogy of a physical desk with documents displayed in 'windows' representing pieces of paper, and other files stored in filing cabinets.

So can someone explain to me why most windowing systems these days cause the current document to spring to the top of the pile on your desktop when you start working on it? It hardly follows the analogy of a desktop - when you write a note on a piece of paper it doesn't jump up and obscure the book you had resting on top of it, covering all your pens and pencils in the process.

Windows popping to the front as soon as they become active is a feature which regularly causes me to tear my hair out in frustration. The reason for this is that I'm used to an operating system which has a very different way of working, whereby a window only comes to the top of the stack when it's told to.

Using this system (a British OS known as RISC OS which runs on ARM processors) I feel much more in control of my work in the GUI. Windows can be brought to the front by clicking on their titlebars and sent to the back using a dedicated icon next to the close icon. At all other times, the active window remains where it is in the stack even once you start typing into it. Windows can also be dragged around the desktop whilst maintaing their current depth in the stack.

This feature means that, for example, I can have a word processor window in the background filling most of my desktop and, just like on a real desktop, lay my reference material (websites or emails etc) on top of the WP's window. I can read from the website and type notes in the WP without it popping to the front and obscuring the website, thus ruining my train of thought.

RISC OS isn't the only desktop to do this; KDE for Unix/Linux has configuration options to allow this behaviour but it's not the default way of working, and the implementation is far from being as intuitive and smooth as the RISC OS one.

In future posts I'll probably be referring to RISC OS quite a lot as it has an exceptionally well thought-out user interface and provides a good grounding for general HCI discussion.

RISC OS features


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