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WorkStrip Comes to Mac OS X

Back in the days of System 6, I couldn't have managed without Now Utilities, and especially Now Menus - in particular, its capability not only to remember my recently used applications and documents, but also to associate each recently used document with the application that opened it. In Now Menu's listing of recently used applications, the documents recently opened with each application appeared as a hierarchical submenu of that application. This was a wonderfully quick, easy, and natural way to find stuff I'd recently been working on. Apple later imitated it, putting recent applications and documents in the Apple menu; but Apple's implementation lacked any interface association between recent documents and their applications.


To see why this association is important, think of the sheer numbers involved. The relationship of applications to documents is one-to-many. A list of my thirty most recently used applications might be useful, but a list of my thirty most recently used documents is likely pointless. A list of the thirty documents most recently used by each application is what I need! But a single indiscriminate list of these, shown alphabetically, would be disordered (since one often thinks in terms of applications first) and unwieldy (since it would contain 900 items).

The solution in Now Menus, on the other hand, was perfect; and I remained faithful through its transition into System 7, and then used Power On Software's Action Menus to maintain the same functionality after Now fell by the wayside. The latter served me right up through Mac OS 9.

<http://poweronsoftware.com/products/ actionUtilities/>

With the coming of Mac OS X, though, this functionality hit a glass ceiling. Apple's own Recent Items in the Mac OS X Apple menu still doesn't associate documents with applications, though at least in Jaguar you can increase the number of remembered items to 50. Action Utilities hasn't made the transition. Proteron's MaxMenus, the closest thing to a Now Menus clone on Mac OS X, presents the same Recent Items as the Apple menu, again with no application-document association. What to do? I was in a funk, until a Macworld Expo San Francisco glimpse of Softchaos's WorkStrip running on Mac OS 9 gave me hope. If this utility could migrate to Mac OS X, I might be saved.


WorkStrip did eventually make the transition, but the first Mac OS X release was a background CPU hog, and the second had a buggy way of treating documents opened by browsers. However, Softchaos's chief technical officer, Matt Gough, was extremely responsive with regard to these problems; and as of the recently released version 2.02, they are a thing of the past. WorkStrip X is now ready for prime time.

<http://www.softchaos.com/products/overview_ wsx.html>

A Good Look -- WorkStrip X is basically an application switcher and a launcher of applications, documents, and folders. So too, of course, is the Dock; and you can think of WorkStrip as a Dock supplement. It would be wrong, though, to describe it as a Dock replacement; a true Dock replacement is impossible, because the Dock possesses secret knowledge and capabilities to which Apple has allowed no one else access - the list of windows open in every application, the capacity to switch to a particular window, the capability to display a special application icon (such as iCal's display of the current date), and so forth.

WorkStrip X is a background-only application, without menus or a place in the Dock. It's represented by a row of icons at one edge of your screen; for each icon, what you see is a roughly rectangular white area (which I'll call a "pedestal") butting up against the screen edge, and overlapping this and sticking further into the screen, the icon itself. The icon is not embedded in a rectangle; its shape is the icon's shape, and this shape casts a shadow onto the white rectangle. The effect is like a row of little statues of the icons, each standing on its own white pedestal; it's absolutely gorgeous. There are various modes for displaying and summoning WorkStrip; I particularly like the one where all you see is a single icon (which floats over all your applications, off in a corner somewhere) until you move the mouse over this, whereupon all the other icons appear.

A shortcoming of the Dock is that one row of icons functions both as a launcher (of items that you've dragged into it) and as a switcher (between currently running applications). WorkStrip operates the same way, but it overcomes the shortcoming by allowing you to define "workspaces." A workspace is simply a set of items you've dragged into WorkStrip. The combination of items to form each workspace is completely up to you; it might be a category of application, such as Internet programs or games, or it might be the applications and folders needed for a particular task, such as writing a certain book. WorkStrip always displays exactly one workspace at a time, along with a special "system-level" workspace whose items are always displayed.

The icons displayed at any given moment in WorkStrip X are: the main WorkStrip icon, to which you drag items to add them to the system-level workspace; the current workspace icon, to which you drag items to add them to this workspace, and whose contextual menu switches workspaces; the items of the system-level workspace; the items of the current workspace; and the currently running applications. Various colors and sub-icons tell you why an icon is being displayed - it's part of the workspace, it's currently running, it's currently running and frontmost, it's currently running and also part of the workspace, and so on. There is no way to tell by looking whether a workspace item is part of the current or system-level workspace; I regard this as a flaw.

The various things you can do with an icon are very much what you would expect. Click an application, document, or folder icon to open it or switch to it (with various Dock-like modifier keys). Control-click an icon to bring up its contextual menu. In the case of a folder, the contextual menu shows its contents hierarchically, but with a striking twist: at every level the items appear sorted, showing first folders, then applications, then documents - themselves sorted by type. Another nice thing about these hierarchical menus is that you can choose either a file or a folder. Once you've navigated into your hard drive this way, you may never want to do it any other way; it's wonderful.

The Documents in the Case -- WorkStrip X lists recently opened documents as items of the Recent Items menu, which is itself a hierarchical submenu that can appear in three places:

  • in the WorkStrip icon's contextual menu;

  • in the workspace icon's contextual menu, if that workspace was active when you opened the document; and

  • in the application icon's contextual menu, if that application was visible in WorkStrip when you opened the document.

In the case of the Finder, whose icon is of course always present, its "documents" are folders; WorkStrip can thus manage recent folders as well as files.

Mac OS X doesn't offer utilities like WorkStrip X any way of hacking into the system as Now Utilities did under earlier versions of the Mac OS, so WorkStrip X can't "see" you open a document by double-clicking it in the Finder, or by using an Application's Open dialog. WorkStrip X can "see" what you do only within WorkStrip X; in other words, the only documents WorkStrip X can track are those you open using WorkStrip X. This could mean dragging a document onto an application icon in WorkStrip X, or navigating down the hierarchical menu of a folder icon in WorkStrip X, to find and open a document.

WorkStrip remembers only the last 100 Recent Items that you've opened. This minor limitation is made up for, though, by the fact that a Recent Items document can be promoted from temporary to persistent status. The interface for this is ingenious; you click not on the application's icon but on its pedestal, whereupon a drawer opens showing a list of the application's associated documents, both temporary (Recent Items) and persistent. Here you can perform document management tasks, such as moving a document's status between temporary and persistent, navigating its path, showing it in the Finder, removing it from the list, and even deleting it.

WorkStrip Conclusions -- WorkStrip X is lovely to look at, and is a marvel of programming ingenuity. It comes with good documentation. I haven't mentioned everything WorkStrip X can do, but what I've said describes the bulk of its abilities as a launcher and especially as a manager of documents in association with applications. That management can be very good indeed, but it will require some practice and some revision of one's normal habits - such as remembering to open things through WorkStrip and not through the Finder. You may also have to modify your thinking a bit in order to appreciate WorkStrip's strengths.

For example, you may find disappointing the restriction that WorkStrip doesn't associate a document with an application that happens at that moment to be in a different workspace. I was disappointed by this too, at first. Then I started to understand. WorkStrip's basic unit of thought, as it were, is not the application but the workspace. What WorkStrip is trying to help you do is to manage the applications and documents you need for some particular task. To see what I mean, think what should happen if an application, such as BBEdit, appears in two different workspaces, such as Writing and Programming. What should happen if a document is dragged onto BBEdit's icon in the Writing workspace, and later a different document is dragged onto BBEdit's icon in the Programming workspace? Surely the presumption is that these are two very different working contexts for you, and therefore BBEdit should be treated here as essentially two different programs. The documents associated with BBEdit the Writing program should thus not be allowed to mingle with the documents associated with BBEdit the Programming program. That is how WorkStrip behaves, and it makes sense. If that's not how you wanted WorkStrip to treat BBEdit, you should have made it part of the system-level workspace.

I must admit that WorkStrip X is not my favorite interface for a launcher; I find it too mouse-oriented and clumsy, and somewhat restricted. My launcher of choice remains James Thomson's DragThing. DragThing's paradigm is superbly simple: any number of docks, each populated through drag-and-drop with any number of items, where each item can be an application, file, folder, or script, and supported by a full array of keyboard shortcuts and contextual menus. Frankly, if DragThing could remember documents opened in each application, I would probably have no desire to use WorkStrip at all.


But DragStrip doesn't have that ability, and WorkStrip does. The result is that although I don't use WorkStrip all the time, when I'm engaged on one or more particular projects, such as the Cocoa application I'm writing at the moment, WorkStrip is an absolute lifesaver, mustering and organizing the ever-shifting constellation of applications, documents, and folders involved. In short, even if this isn't a program that uses the mouse and keyboard the way I do, it's a program that thinks the way I do. At the same time, too, tastes vary; you might actually find WorkStrip's Dock-like, mouse-oriented interface just your cup of tea. In any case, it costs you nothing to find out; a 30-day trial version is yours for the downloading (4.8 MB).

<http://www.softchaos.com/downloads/ downloadform.html>

WorkStrip X costs about $40, varying with the current exchange rates for the UK pound. It requires Mac OS X; there is also a Mac OS 9 version which I haven't tried, but which presumably offers similar capabilities, albeit with a somewhat different interface.

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