Software: focusing upon the matter at hand

Seeing this post about minimising distractions on OS X on 43 Folders the other week prompted me to finally get round to writing this post about a possible trend in software interfaces I’ve recently noted.

Computers enable us to undertake an amazing variety of tasks. As part of that, it’s possible to have a large number of programs and windows open at any one time. Apple’s Expose and its forthcoming Spaces are attempts to ease the strain of managing the increasing complexity of multi-tasking at an operating system level. What this post is about is the development of specific applications that allows the user to rid themselves of distractions and focus entirely upon the matter at hand.

My first experience of this occurred a long time ago when I discovered how to work on an image in Photoshop against a black background and with all the palettes hidden by using the tab key. The problem I always found, however, was that accessing tools to work on the chosen image was a little fiddly, as was accessing other images (I know about cmd-tab, but with a lot of open files selection was clumsy). Fast forward quite a few years and the next sight of this radical decluttering came with iPhoto’s full-screen mode. Oddly, this lovely feature is rather difficult to access – as far as I’m aware, it’s only available by right-clicking on an image and choosing ‘Edit using full screen’. No matter, once discovered, you find yourself in a delightfully clear environment with your chosen image displayed at its maximum size, a browsing filmstrip and edit bar display momentarily before sliding off-screen together with the otherwise omnipresent upper menu bar. And with a flick of the cursor they return.

Lightroom screenshot

Apple’s pro photography programme, Aperture, follows in iPhoto’s footsteps and its fullscreen mode is similarly a little tucked away. Additionally, once located, it takes some research to discover how to hide the filmstrip browsing menu and it’s rather annoyingly set to reappear by cursor location which means it pops up frequently when it’s not wanted. Surprisingly, given Apple’s generally well-deserved reputation for clean interfaces, it’s Adobe’s interface for its Aperture competitor, Lightroom, that shows how things should be done. I’ve downloaded both apps in beta/demo form and found Lightroom to be far easier to learn without having to resort to the online help system. Accordingly, I was very quickly able to find and utilise the full-screen mode. Menus pleasingly slide out from the sides of the screen or at the touch of a single key (NB, one key e.g. ‘h’ for the adjustments palette, not ‘apple-h’ – making it just that bit easier). The malleability of Lightroom’s interface is a joy – it’s possible to hide and show a variety of elements by cursor movement (e.g. the structural sections Library, Develop, Slideshow, etc). I doff my hat to Adobe.

WriteRoom screenshot

What these apps are doing, of course, is utilising the metaphor of the darkroom, just as Apple/Xerox Parc exploited the desktop metaphor. So too with the lovely Writeroom. Here is a program that hands the user a piece of paper and a pencil, turns off everything but the desk lamp and literally shoves everything off the desk. You’re alone with your inspiration (let’s hope you have some, otherwise Writeroom will soon become your most despited app!) Metaphors aside, this program darkens your screen and gives you a blinking cursor at the top of the screen. Nothing else. It’s a delightful piece of minimalism and a favourite of mine for getting down to writing without distraction.

Shiira screenshot

I’m always interested in browsers, given their central importance for engagement with the online world so I download any that look interesting. Shiira exploits quite a few Apple interface elements (HUD panels, Expose-like multi-page browsing, etc.) and is, I think, the first OS X browser to implement a full-screen mode. A small semi-transparent menu tends to annoyingly open up at any cursor movement and the Aqua scrollbar is intrusive, but otherwise it’s a useful, enjoyable way of browsing the web undistracted.

In information-rich/overload times such as these, resources that act as editorial services become increasingly important. Software that enables focus upon single tasks without distraction (as well as facilitating complex, multi-part activities) is to be welcomed. If anybody is aware of any other decluttering apps, I’d be interested to hear. The likes of DVD Player, Front Row, etc are outside my scope of interest as they’re for passive viewing rather than active task fulfillment – having said that, I can’t resist wistfully mentioning Coverflow, the interface bought up and integrated by Apple into iTunes – the original app offered a glorious, full-screen mode that iTunes hasn’t, yet, implemented – please Apple, bring it back!

covershow image

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