Getting Spaces to Behave Slightly Better Using Mozilla Prism

At the end of my review of Spaces yesterday, I mentioned an article over at 37signals. Like me, David identified the need to open separate application windows on different spaces, without being torn from one space to another.

I followed his link to Mac OS X hints, and adjusted the Dock accordingly. But even with that fix, I ended up being so frustrated that I turned off Spaces all together last night. Why? Because the “fix” ended up breaking Alt+Tab.

I still maintain that the best way for Spaces to be effective is to maintain truly separate Desktops; including, separate files on each Desktop, separate Docks for each Desktop, etc. However, that isn’t how Spaces operates today. Accepting this fact, I still find myself determined to reap the potential productivity benefits.

After the jump, I discuss why I’m obsessed with Alt+Tab, how Spaces is breaking Alt+Tab, and how I’m using Mozilla Prism to make Spaces meet my needs a little bit better.

Why I’m Obsessed with Alt+Tab
I remember when I was 15, goofing around on AOL (on Mac Classic, no less), when I randomly stumbled upon Alt+Tab. It was so simple, but so compelling: The idea that you could switch between applications with a couple simple key strokes.

I write about it like I’m the only one to ever use it, and I know that’s far from the case. But for something to have taken hold so long ago… anymore, hitting the Alt+Tab keys to switch between applications is as natural to me as breathing. When I’m reading blogs and chatting with friends, I have one hand on my mouse and the other poised over the Alt+Tab keys.

A cursory search on the topic shows that I’m not alone, and the author here brings up my point (albeit for Windows Vista): Changing the behavior of something so fundamental (especially if its used many times a day by your power users) is dangerous business. There’s a high risk that you’ll frustrate your power users unless you’re legitimately improving the feature.

Apple seems to have hacked apart Alt+Tab with Spaces, and not for the better. Below I go into the behavior I’ve been able to determine on a case by case basis. But here’s a quick preview: The fact that the behavior varies from case to case is a good indication that something might be wrong.

Alt+Tab Mixed with Spaces
Between the hack linked to above and the different options in Spaces Preferences I discussed yesterday, you end up with 6 different scenarios, each with a slightly different behavior. The full list is shown below.

  Dock Auto-Swoosh On (Default) Dock Auto-Swoosh Off (Hack)
App Confined to 1 Space Behaves normally if you’re in that space. If you aren’t, takes you to that space and brings the application to the front. Behaves normally if you’re in that space. Does nothing if you aren’t.
App Set to All Spaces Behaves normally in all spaces. Behaves normally in all spaces.
App Not Specified in Spaces Prefs Behaves normally in the space where the application was first opened. In other spaces, returns to the first space even if an application window is open in the other space. Tries to behave normally; however, sometimes the window is not brought to the front.

Whether you think some behavior above is correct or not, that’s not really the point. The point is that Alt+Tab is so fundamental, and this basic functionality is now no longer predictable by expert users who rely on it.

So what to do? As I said, abandoning Spaces wasn’t an option. Below, I discuss how I used Mozilla Prism to create as close of an ideal working environment in Spaces as I could.

Setting Up Spaces with Prism
If you review my article yesterday, my main goal is to have separate windows from the same application on different spaces. The result? See the bottom row of the table above. Sadly, both options result in atypical Alt+Tab behavior, and I’m unwilling to adjust.

Enter Mozilla Prism: If I can’t have separate windows, I’ll just have to rely on separate applications.

If you aren’t familiar with Mozilla Prism, the simple explanation is that it takes a web application (GMail, Twitter, Facebook, etc) and treats them as their own applications without any of the standard web browser junk. Aside from that added simplicity, I now have common websites behaving as separate applications: Perfect for Spaces.

Here’s how I’ve set up my dock so far:

A shot of my OS X dock with apps for gmail, twitter, and facebook

Now, the GMail, Twitter, and Facebook “applications” can all be open in my “Social” space, leaving other spaces free to utilize my web browser however I choose (for blogging, research, etc). If I Alt+Tab to them, it will take me back to my social space; not what I’d prefer, but I can live with that.

If you want to try this for yourself, be advised that the link above has an older version of Prism than what seems to be the latest… Prism 0.9 for the Mac is hidden here. FYI, this download is also much faster than 0.8.

What I Still Want to See
In closing, a few thoughts about this solution, and what I view as some short-term and long-term improvements.

  1. Spaces Preferences doesn’t recognize Prism-made apps. I’m not sure why. I can select them. I can hit OK. But then they just don’t show up in the window. It’s very strange.
  2. This solution doesn’t scale well. Every time I find a space-specific web browser need, I’ll have to create a new Prism application for it. Which means dock clutter, and more apps to switch between with Alt+Tab.
  3. The core problem with Spaces isn’t confined to web browsing (even though web browsing is probably the worst offender in my book). Code editors, graphics programs, etc… all of them will need to be on multiple spaces.

Ultimately, these issues take me back to my first point: Until the desktops are truly separate, Spaces won’t be a complete tool. But, hey. If you can’t make your desktops separate… why not make your applications separate? For now, that’ll do.

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The conversation continues...

  1. On March 11th, 2008 at 6:56 am, julian said:

    If you like Webrunner/Mozilla Prism, also check out http://fluidapp.com/

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