Microsoft files patent for possible taskbar replacement

“A method for managing windows in a display” would sound particularly familiar to every Windows user as “that strip at the bottom of the screen with the Start button and clock” or perhaps the more formal name, the taskbar. On July 12 the Patent Office processed a patent application from Microsoft filed on the 9th of February, 2006 of what appears to be a possible alternative for the decade-old taskbar we all know and cherish in Windows.

Windows taskbars
The taskbars styles of the last two Windows release. (Composited) images credit: Wikipedia user BWCNY

Time and time again, Windows enthusiasts have jumped on the idea of replacing the taskbar in the ‘next’ version of Windows as one of the most revolutionary user interface changes Microsoft can make. For Windows Vista (Longhorn), the center of attention was the sidebar before undergoing major feature-reduction surgery in 2005 – a lot of people fantasized about how the sidebar could become the taskbar replacement, however that soon worn-off.

Microsoft Research VIBEThis time around a bunch of Microsoft Researchers have come up with a way to manage multi-tasking windows by the use of what they call a “clipping list”. The inventors, Tara Matthews, George Robertson, Mary Czerwinski and Desney Tan are all except Tara, part of the infamous MSR VIBE (Visualization and Interaction for Business and Entertainment) project aimed at enhancing information presentation and work efficiency. Ironically, they can’t seem to do the same for the website – it’s renders horribly in Firefox.

Their proposed solution, one of many I’d imagine, detailed in over 30 or so odd pages can be summarized as thumbnails with an icon – “A clipping comprises an image of a region of a window and an icon.” To picture what that might look like, imagine each of your minimized application buttons represented by a ’tile’ and an overlaid icon with text. These tiles would then be stacked vertically on the side of the screen looking somewhat a sidebar. The following diagrams were provided.

taskbar-1.gif
Fig 1: A representation of the current taskbar model whereby windows are represented by icons docked at the bottom of the screen. Each window has its own icon.

A task bar containing icons is a way to manage windows for a plurality of tasks by representing the windows with images smaller than the windows. A more effective way to manage windows is to use “clippings.” A clipping comprises an image and an icon. The image in a clipping is a region of a window with which the clipping is associated. The icon represents the application with which the window is associated. Clippings “distill” the information contained in a window to make it easier for users to quickly understand the status of the window and the task for which the window was created.

taskbar-2.gif
Fig 2B: The “Presentations” window becomes clipped and thus displayed outside the focal region and inside the peripheral region. Windows can be clipped by either dragging or pressing the “minimize” button. This clipping has an icon and title.

taskbar-3.gif
Fig 4: Clippings however are not just thumbnails. Whilst the default clipping is a thumbnail of the top-left corner of the actual window, certain application can also render dynamic and optimized content for the clipping. In this case, a presentation application can render an outline or display the progress of changing content.

taskbar-5.gif
Fig 8: To organize clippings, you would also be able to categorize certain applications and their associate clippings under user-defined categories such as “Presentation” or “Conference”. This is along with the ability to reorganize taskbar buttons are probably two of the most demanded requests for taskbar improvements, which they’ve obviously addressed.

taskbar-6.gif
Fig 10A: Last but not least, like today, clippings will flash like mad to grab out attention when something’s happened or your friends on instant messenger have a life or death situation they need to share with you with the use of dancing emoticons.

Windows FlipObviously this is very preliminary information on how this solution works but I like what I’m seeing. For the same reasons why in Windows Vista, the window thumbnails are popular and well received, people prefer visual representation than text – most of the time its easier to identify. However at the same time I can also raise several usability issues which they do not address. I know some (crazy) people who can have up to 30 windows open at one time, how will the ‘clipping list’ expand? I hope they have a solution to that somewhere in the MSR vault because this is certainly worth following up on.

Even though this is still very much research and experimentation, there is at least one thing I like about Sinofsky and that is he can take and persist bold risks like the new user interface in Office 2007. I bet his proposed changes sent shivers down the spines of countless executives and stakeholders, but he still took a bet with it. Whether or not he’ll take a bet with Windows we will know in a few year’s time.

44 insightful thoughts

  1. I should add that the link I presented earlier does not contain any images of Cairo’s taskbar using a method similar to Microsoft’s new patent, but the topic is discussed and has been created in a dozen unreleased concepts for the project.

    The aim of Cairo will be to revolutionize the desktop experience and provide users a brand new way of interacting with their computers. I’m glad to see that my thinking parallels Microsoft, but I guess that means I’m not thinking far enough outside the box =).

  2. please no thumbnails. those things are way too small to allow a quick identification. when i have several tasks open that look quite similiar, the thumbnail view in the taskbar (or alt+tab) are totally useless to me. only the text/description then helps.

  3. I didn’t see, how this could improve usability. Thumbnails aren’t that good to represent a window. The taskbar is one of the best interface designs ever created. It’s small, it’s on the longer border (widescreen displays!), the buttons are at the border and are very big (Fitt’s Law) compared to this concept and now with Vista it has the best presentation of information: 1. the small icons gives you a hint what application it is (orange for example is Firefox, yellow Outlook, blue Word…), 2. the title says what document it is and 3. the thumbnail can give you more information. It’s a perfect information pyramid.

    This research concept looks a lot like the Dock bar in OS X and has some of the prominent disadvantages of the Dock. The beauty of the current taskbar is, that with the start menu it represents the whole operating system in such a small space. And you can always reach a task because there is always a representation of all things that are started (different to the Dock bar and the concept here).

    My suggestion would be to let one reorganize the taskbar buttons and for grouping some tasks, just use virtual desktops. They could be managed with tabs on the left side (like a small sidebar) where you can drag & drop windows to different desktops.

  4. Don’t judge until you see the whole operating system. For those of you who oppose thumbnails, look at Vista’s task bar. Thumbnails and buttons. The new way wouldn’t be as hard to get used to as you guys think.

  5. Sounds very similar to Apple’s Dock. Minimized applications are already displayed as thumbnails and if you move the dock to the side you get a similar effect as to what is mentioned in the article.

    I believe the new drawer functionality in Leopard improves further on this.

  6. The taskbar image looks like two XPs and a Vista to me. :)

    Anyway, sounds interesting. The taskbar works all right the way it is for me. But I’ll reserve judgement until this actually materializes (or doesn’t).

  7. To everyone, they’re not really thumbnails. Whilst thumbnails is an option, their idea also encompasses lists and outlines in the ‘clippings’.

  8. Interesting find, I wonder if Microsoft is up to finally breaking away from the current Windows GUI and setting up for something totally new and revolutionary… time will tell but I doubt it, It’s too difficult for MS to change the Windows GUI dramatically but you never know.

  9. I think it’s just too bad that MS missed out on the “Dock” concept that Apple implemented with OS X, I think it is one of the best setups I have seen for launching frequently used applications.

    If they combined this “sidebar” concept for open windows with a “Dock”-like concept they probably would have something people would want.

    [Note: I am not a mac user, in fact I don't like the majority of Apple's products very much at all, I just think the Dock concept was really one of their best ideas]

  10. Ely
    I dont think that its too difficult for MS to change their GUI dramatically. Its more a question if the mass market is ready for such a change. I highly doubt that. Thats why we will see only minor changes.

  11. Hmm: looks exactly like what happens on in Mac OSX when you hit the f9 key…? It will probably take MS abother 5 years to do this so don’t hold any breath – S plays a catch-up game with the Mac every time – Win 3x; Win 98, WinXP and now Vista. If they could speed up the catch-up cycle they might be offering something useful in the timeframe people actually want and expect it. So in 2011 Windows Mobile will finally have some iphone-like usablity ;-)

  12. sorry to mention but most of the features in mac osx were first shown in the longhonrn demos. its not apple that invents all stuff, they just impelemented the ideas quicker. its also easier for them cause they had more regular updates (which cost btw).
    this should change with the new product life cycle ms wants to follow. every 2-3 years a new os.

  13. Paralel –

    What advantage do you believe the Dock has over the Taskbar plus Quick Launch? Cute “genie effect” aside, I don’t think there is one.

    The Dock is a horrible mess, clearly putting form above function. The Windows setup of quick launch + taskbar makes far more sense, seperating the launcher from “running tasks” and providing a more consistent experience and a simple view of what’s currently running.

    Kevin –

    The F9 key is Expose, right? This looks absolutely nothing like that. Expose is much more comparable to Alt+Tab, Flip3D, etc.

  14. Marco that’s what I meant, of course technically speaking MS is able to do whatever they want with their OS, they have more than enough programmers and programming experience to do such a change, it’s what the market expects from MS and the backward compatibility and training of thousands of people these companies will have to go through that will hold Microsoft up from doing it IMHO; sorry I didn’t make my point clear.

  15. @Paralel: The Dock bar is less usable than the taskbar IMO. Even Apple’s (ex-) designers think so. The biggest problem is, that it is a dock, so that windows aren’t reachable over the Dock, when they are opened. Think of a large window in front of a smaller one. You can’t reach the smaller one in the background. Thats why they have introduced Exposé.

    BTW the Dock was introduces by Steve Job’s NeXT and moved over with him to the Mac. Maybe that’s why I think it doesn’t fit into the Lisa interface and feels like a third party plugin that get’s new features on top in every new version.

  16. I have to agree with Brandon and the others with the same opinion about the Dock; not to bash OSX or anything but to me the Dock is dumb and obtrusive, I really fail to see the advantages of it, The taskbar and quick launch are a lot more useful, I would hate it if Windows would ever go that route.

  17. Even if the taskbar buttons were just multi-line to fully show for instance the application name and the open document name it might be useful. And it might be useful to look at this clipping list in the way of something like collapsing applications into compact versions in a way to resemble some of the purposes of the sidebar, like collapsing media player into a sidebar application, or an IM program.

    However if its a replacement for the taskbar, it also takes away the essential usability benefit of how windows does window management in allowing you to have many windows open and view ones that are in the background.

    Also I would rather the default clipping be just something that looks like a taskbar button with an icon and title, with it being the responsibility of the application to create clipping content. I know using thumbnails everywhere is now the vogue in the Windows team, but it can be horribly overused from an aesthetic perspective.

    In fact, it might even work as a combination of a sidebar and a taskbar, if the compact clipping region only showed if a window were minimized, and otherwise it would show up, but looking like a taskbar button. So windows are all shown but only clipped when minimized.

    Of course, from a user’s perspective this might also create a little confusion. But the point is that I think Microsoft needs to keep taskbar functions in whatever they do.

  18. Well, I am training to he a user experience designer, and I really get annoyed at patents like this. Who’s to say the open-source projects I’ve worked on in the past didn’t have concepts that would infringe on this patent when it undoubtedly gets approved? We obviously have prior art, but at that point it’s almost like reverse onus where we have to prove we had it first to get them to stop.

    I dislike the way the law is headed in the US, I’m very glad right now and looking into the future, that I’m not there right now.

    I’ll tell you all what, I’m starting a blog on sourceforge where we develop user interface concepts and establish a strong prior art by developing the ideas and concepts to patentable detail, and promptly release them into the open-source community under the GPL.

    This means anybody and everybody (microsoft included) is free to use them and modify them, sell them whatever they want, but if they use them in something, that entire something must itself assume the same open-source licence, ensuring that the ideas contained within will always be free.

    Sad to see that microsoft has little creativity left except to rip off Apple, and now apparently ripping off linux and people who develop these ideas for charity essentially. They went from stealing from a competitor to stealing from a church basically. It doesn’t get much lower than that.

  19. @Brandon Live

    “The Windows setup of quick launch + taskbar makes far more sense, seperating the launcher from “running tasks” and providing a more consistent experience and a simple view of what’s currently running.”

    If in OS X I have ten dock items and I open all ten of those programs, I still only have ten icons on my bar/dock/screen. In XP, If I have ten icons in the quick launch bar, and open ten programs, I now have ten tabs, plus ten icons (assuming I’m not using the expandable menu and it’s in the default location).

    Separating the launch-icons from the programs makes less sense. I can’t stand explorer.exe anyway. I use litestep.

    Kevin –

    The F9 key is Expose, right? This looks absolutely nothing like that. Expose is much more comparable to Alt+Tab, Flip3D, etc.

  20. To RUSTY:
    Remember that most forums and web pages are used for support and shows the people problems and not the good things of Vista, is good that you try trial/demo/unactivated version of vista, if everything works good then buy the license.

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  22. Excellent diagram!
    This diagram represent the application with which the window is associated. Clippings “distill” the information contained in a window to make it easier for users to quickly understand the status of the window and the task for which the window was created.

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