Rethinking the Taskbar

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed something about how I’ve organized my desktop: it no longer includes a taskbar. And, although it’s one of those computing metaphors that been around forever and seems timeless, obvious and necessary, I don’t miss it at all. In fact, I really like not having it around.

The taskbar, as it exists by default (but with variances) in each of the three operating systems that people talk about when they talk about operating systems, exists to serve three primary purposes:

  1. Application launcher
  2. Window manager
  3. Notification area

What I’ve gradually realized is that the only capability I really need and use is the notification area. The other two concerns are better handled, I think, in other ways.

Application Launcher

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I keep this functionality around on my desktop, but only in the interest of fallback. Except in the case of emergency, I used a third party key-based application launcher that is unobtrusive and more productive for me. My choices: Quicksilver (Mac), GNOME Do (Linux) and Launchy (Windows).

There’s no escaping the fact that a few key taps is easier and faster than wading through layers of nested menus.

Window Manager

The window manager is the visual metaphor that indicates which applications are running and/or which windows of a given application are open. On Mac, this is a function of the dock, on Linux it’s a panel accoutrement that can be added or removed like every other panel option and on Windows it’s that middle area of the taskbar between the Start button and the system tray (now called the notification area). But why do we need it?

Once I noticed that I’d effectively removed it from my consciousness, I started thinking about why. The fact is that I already know what windows are open when I need to know. At any given time, only one window is, and can be, active. If I need another application or window, I use the keyboard-based task switcher to access that application or window. On a Mac, that’s Cmd+Tab to switch applications and Cmd+` to switch between windows of the active application. On Windows and Linux, Alt+Tab does both. In order to switch tasks, the task switcher includes a display of the other applications or windows that are open.

In my mind, the only time I need to know what other applications and windows are available to me are when I no longer want the one that’s currently active. At that time, I’m using the task switcher anyway, so the constant visual cue on the taskbar is actually just visual clutter.

Customizing the Desktop

Unfortunately, removing the window manager and application launcher isn’t possible on Windows, but I no longer use Windows on a regular basis and it is possible, at least superficially, on both Mac and Linux.


Mac separates the three purposes of the taskbar nicely for me. The application launcher and window manager are contained within its dock while the notification area exists on the menu bar. I can’t remove the dock without doing some potentially detrimental system-level hacking, but I’ve set it to auto-hide and moved it to the left of my desktop where I’m less likely to hover over it and make it display. Although it’s still around and available, I haven’t used the dock in a very long time.


Linux, or more accurately, the Gnome desktop environment that I prefer, does an even better job of separating these concerns. Gnome uses a panel metaphor on which the user can place different functional components. My desktop includes a single panel at the top of my screen that looks a lot like my Mac menu bar. It contains my application launcher – as I’ve admitted, I do keep it around just in case – and my notification area, but no window manager.

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