Apple appears to be at it again, adding a smorgasbord of new eye-popping eye candy to the Mac OS X operating system. New in version 10.4 are voice control, Safari replete with RSS support, and the dashboard, among a host of other things. Of course, all these are only available (to me, anyway) as video clips on the web site; nonetheless, it's pretty clear what the dashboard does. But what really struck me about the dashboard is this: The widgets on the dashboard are basically the same thing as the dockapps in NextStep. This is not suprising, since Mac OS X is an enormously prettified NextStep-like environment. (Note that by NextStep, I mean NextStep and GNUStep, and whatever else has cloned the dockapp functionality.)

What is the dashboard?

The dashboard is normally hidden from view, just a reminding compass icon on the dock. The dashboard can be brought up by clicking the icon or by hitting F12, and while the dashboard is forefront, everything else is greyed and darkened into the background. The dashboard itself is a collection of widgets, which are small (mostly under 200x200) pieces of eye candy and some simple functionality; one of them is a quick foreign-language translator, one is a little weather indicator with nice animations, and surely a lot more will pop up once they are available to developers.

Of course, both the dashboard and dockapps are a subset of a larger pattern in mordern user interfaces; this is the trend toward having a few very small, convenient tools to complement the full-blown applications running on the system. Examples would be GNOME applets, KDE applets, system tray icons in Windows, and any small tool that sits on top and doesn't detract from the usefulness of the system. I could compare and contrast all of these, but dockapps and the dashboard are genetically related, unlike the rest of the list.

The dashboard versus dockapps

I say that this is all well and good; but as I said before, these are a fancy-schmancy new form of dockapp. What's more, the dashboard is in certain ways a step backward from dockapps. Let me lay it out the pros and cons of both:

The dashboard is hidden; dockapps are not

The dashboard its widgets are normally hidden; dockapps are by definition on the dock, so they are constantly visible. Note here that the NextStep dock does not have auto-hide, as far as I know; even so, having these things on the dock with all the launchers is really nice. (Advantage dockapps.) Brontosaurus notes to me that the example widgets (weather monitor, calculator) wouldn't really be welcome on the dock for space reasons.

Widgets can do more than dockapps.

Because dockapps are on the dock, they are an exact size and shape (usually 64x64) and necessarily minimalist, while widgets can be quite spacious, probably even up to 400x300 or so; and you can fill the whole screen with them. (Advantage dashboard.)

"The Zone": Dockapps yea, dashboard nay

This is really just a corollary of the first point. Dockapps are always both visible and immediately available, so they don't interrupt your flow. The dashboard, conversely, interrupts your flow both because you must activate it explicitly, and because it is a server visual interruption. (Redundant advantage dockapps)

Brontosaurus' comment on size and the dock brings up an interesting point: dockapps and widgets end up performing different sets of tasks; widgets can include the range of things that you don't want to see constantly, or are too big to be seen constantly. By contrast, all of the dockapps I ever used are things that I didn't mind seeing, in 64x64, the whole time they were activated. Some of these things, such as battery monitor and the clock/calendar, have jumped into the Mac classic-style menu bar at the top from being dockapps in NextStep, so that they are constantly visible. Some of them, such as media player and system monitor, will ostensibly move into the realm of widgets. I'm not certain whether objects can be added to the menu bar at will, or if that is exclusively for the system.


So here it is: Dockapp and the dashboard are similar features. Time will tell if Apple has made it better or worse, but I predict that the dashboard will not see very much use because it is not as convenient as dockapps on the bock, even if the widgets are more useful.

Of course, what would be really nice is if you could have these right on the dock, just like the original dockapp design, but in variable size and shape. It's possible this was left out for programming or schedule reasons. I hope this shows up in version 10.5, but I'm not holding my breath.

For those of you who would like to experience dockapps firsthand, there is a free re-implementation of NextStep called GNUStep that runs on Unix, Linux, and is even being ported to Windows.