Taskbar Abuse

Generally, a single instance of an application deserves exactly one slot in the Windows Taskbar. Not zero, not two, not twelve, but one. Users are used to things functioning this way so if one plans to change the rules, there had better be a good reason. Exceptions do exist. If your application is to run in the background and is not likely to require user attention, it can run in the Systray or as a service. If the app spawns a logically distinct program, that can earn another slot on the taskbar.

It is quite annoying to lose an app behind a sea of windows and to lack a taskbar button with which to activate it. This behavior is especially prevalent with installers. Even more annoying, though, is an application which clutters the taskbar with buttons. The multiple document interface (MDI) is supposed to prevent just such a scenario.

Since MS Office 2000, Microsoft's attitude towards the taskbar has been bizarre. Members of the office suite have adopted an unholy hybrid between the MDI and the single document interface (SDI). This shows either complete disregard for existing standards or the arrogance to think that they can remake conventions and that everyone else will follow suit. Neither behavior is uncommon for Microsoft and the latter is not even such a bad assumption. MS has the clout to force the software industry into submission. Unfortunately, in this case, this 'innovative' approach to multiple document handling is a step backwards.

By convention, an MDI app opens with no documents on the internal desktop. From here a user can open a doc or start a new one. At all times, an MDI can contain zero to many documents and they all should share one slot on the taskbar. Alt-[Shift-]Tab is used to cycle through top level applications (those that have an entry on the taskbar). Ctrl-[Shift-]Tab is used to cycle through documents within an MDI. An MDI can be more space-efficient because all documents share toolbars, palletes, drop-down menus and the like.

An SDI is less advanced but has its place. From a user perspective, it appears that multiple documents are each running in their own instance of the application at large (think Notepad). Each instance of an SDI should always have exactly one open document. An SDI usually means that each instance of an application is running its own processes. In a modern operating system, this means that each program has its own protected memory space and a crash will not bring down all of the other instances of the app.

Microsoft has seen fit to change all this (at least in MS Office). It has created an interface in which the app contains either zero or one document. When a user first opens MS Word, he is greeted with what appears to be an MDI with a new document already opened. This is already confusing. If it's an SDI, there should be no 'X' button with which to close the internal document. If it's an MDI, there should be no document open.

Doc already opened: how convenient

Below, a user has closed the default document. It appears that he is at the default screen of an MDI.

I didn't like that doc

If a user creates two new documents, however, it looks like he's opened an entirely new version of Word. To prevent the user from creating multiple Word Windows while any Window is document-less, attempting to launch Word from the Start Menu while an empty Word Window exists merely creates a new document in the pre-existing window. Also, when multiple windows exist, the option to close either individual document is removed. This is totally inconsistent and fairly likely to disorient the user. Especially worrisome is a situation where a user wishes to close just one of several documents. Does he dare click the 'X' at the top right of the app? Will that close the active document or all documents? Does closing one window have the same effect as the 'Exit' option under the file menu? As it turns out, 'Exit' will shut down the (multi-window) application while the 'X' will close only the window framing the current document. As soon as only one application window remains, its internal window regains the ability to be closed via the internal close button. Confused? If so, you're not alone. If not, try this on for size: a user can open multiple windows for the same document using the 'New Window' option under the 'Windows' menu. Also, a user can use the 'Split' option to see multiple, disjoint views of a document in a single window. What happens if a power user wishes to open two distinct instances of MS Word running in separate memory spaces? We could find no way to accomplish this.

Two docs, three instances?

Even more confusing is the way MS Access handles multiple documents. Talk about a round peg and a square hole. In an attempt to make the entire Office suite consistent, the designers tried to force their strange taskbar policy upon their consumer database package, MS Access. MS Access is complex because it uses an MDI window to handle a single 'document' -- a database. A user can open multiple database objects within a single database.

One app, five icons

Unfortuntely, MS decided to treat each object as a document and give it its own slot in the taskbar. This is confusing enough in itself. If a user needs to open a second database in parallel with the first, disaster ensues. He must open a second pseudo-MDI window and the taskbar is packed with entries for each open object in each database. The user is left with no way to determine which taskbar entries apply to which MDI Window. To make matters worse, Access assigns a taskbar slot to the database itself; in order to do anything remotely useful, a user must open at least one object and thus dedicate two taskbar slots to the application.

Just 2 Programs running?

We still haven't been able to determine how Access decides which icon to use...

Which one of these is not like the other?

Microsofts 'enhancements' confuse the user, clutter the taskbar and offer little advantage. Every application handles the new paradigm differently: PowerPoint won't even allow multiple instances and is incapable of consuming more than one taskbar slot. Outlook uses a taskbar position for each new message, reminder, journal entry, etc. FrontPage allows multiple documents within a fairly standard MDI but forces docs to be maximized at all times. It's almost like they've run out of things to add to the Office Suite but need to change something in order to get people to pay for an upgrade.

The only potential benefit of this non-standard behavior is more immediate access to a specific document. Rather than cycling through docs via Ctrl-[Shift-]Tab, the 'Window' menu or with a mouse-driven search through the internal window, the user can immediately click on a document in the taskbar or Alt-Tab to it. Alt-Tab is really no better than Ctrl-Tab for keyboard access to a document. Arguably, it is worse, because a user must cycle through unrelated applications. We suppose that a minor benefit is that the user must remember only one shortcut instead of two. On a program by program basis, reducing functionality in order to decrease the learning curve is worth considering. Because all MDI programs (should) share the same way of iterating through individual documents, though, this benefit is diminished considerably. As users become more computer savvy with every year, a better long term strategy would be to simplify when possible but only rarely at the cost of functionality and never at the cost of consistency. It is far easier to deal with a single confusing design than a plethora of different 'simplified' interfaces.

The second dubious advantage of MS-MDI is the user's newfound ability to click directly on a document in the taskbar. Too bad that 99% of us have small enough screens, enough apps running in parallel and enough detritus in our QuickLaunch Bars and Systrays that it is impossible to distinguish between taskbar items that share a single icon. Thus, we end up manually clicking numerous taskbar buttons until we stumble upon the right one. To make matters worse, Microsoft's 'innovation' hampers the window tile/cascade functionality. It is impossible to automatically organize a set of MS Office windows within an arbitrary rectangular section of the screen. This is yet another reason why Internet Explorer could benefit from an MDI. Bill Gates should just stick to what he knows: copying other people's good stuff. Embrace and extend and crush.