A New Way of Working with Mac OS X: Glimmer Mode

| Hidden Dimensions

"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.."

-- Linus Pauling

The Mac OS X interface needs a new working mode. This article describes a fundamental problem and how to solve it with current Mac OS X technologies.

For most casual Macintosh users, the concept of workflow on the Mac OS X desktop isn't an issue. However, for professionals who use a lot of applications at once, display real estate and workflow start to become an issue. That's because, based on the typical application size, the acuity of the human eye, the Mac's display scale in pixels per inch, and typical display sizes, lots of applications start to crowd the screen. That's why many MacBook users, when at their desk, attach a second display. 

For example, here's a list of the apps I typically use every day to get my job done:

  • Safari
  • Apple Mail
  • Vienna (RSS Reader)
  • iChat
  • PathFinder
  • BBEdit
  • Twitterific
  • Today (iCal summary)
  • World Clock
  • Dictionary
  • iStat
  • MenuCalenderClock
  • Graphic Converter (as needed)
  • Image Well
  • Preview
  • iCal
  • Address Book
  • iTunes (background music to soothe the writer's soul, of course.)

Orchestrating these apps on my MacBook Pro and 23-inch Cinema displays, even with Spaces (and Hyperspaces), is a continuing challenge. At first, I thought I needed a third display, which is possible with the Gefen USB to DVI converter -- if the apps on the third display don't tax the CPUs too much.

Then I started thinking about what the real problem is, and it dawned on me. Stay with me here.


On computers, we humans do two kinds of multitasking. The first is spatial multitasking. That's when we use different parts of the screen, that is, different apps at the same time. For example, when I was doing afternoon news here, I needed to have BBEdit open next to Safari. Vienna would lead me to a news story, I'd read it in Safari, and compose my story in BBEdit right next to Safari. I needed to look at both -- that's spatial multitasking.

The second kind of multitasking is time sliced. That's when one changes modes in time to do a new task. For example, I'd get a phone call, set up a meeting, and have to launch iCal to enter the data. When that task was done, I returned to my editing.

If we think about groups of applications that work in harmony with each other, we see that spatial tasks are interrupted from time to time by time sliced tasks. It looks like this:

Mac time slicing

Spatial Tasks Interrupted, Resumed Over Time

Mac OS X is completely incapable of differentiating between spatial and time sliced tasks. As a result, we tend to have lots of apps open -- somewhat organized on multiple displays. It's left to the user to mentally juggle spatial and time sliced tasks by bringing the appropriate application to the foreground at the right time. That's a lot of wasted mouse clicks, mental focus juggling apps and wasted time forcing apps to the foreground where they often overlap. The computer can help.

In the process of trying to solve a vaguely recognized problem, Mac OS X and the Finder have come up with a variety of band-aids: Spaces, Application Switching (CMD + TAB), hiding apps (CMD-H), and so on. But we already have a better model...

The iPhone Approach

The iPhone does a beautiful job of synthesizing time slicing and spatial multitasking. When you select an app, you work for a time and are constrained, spatially within the app -- which is essentially the iPhone's display. When done, you hit the home button, and move forward in time to select the next task, say, check the weather.

Recognizing that a user can only do one thing at a time on a handheld, the iPhone basically enforces a workflow that intersperses spatial tasks in time. It looks like this:

iPhpne Time Slicing

iPhone Time Slicing is Enforced

Whether the Apple engineers understood the underlying principles of these two kinds of multitasking or were simply led down a path through iPhone technical limitations and instinctive genius has not been revealed. What's clear, however, is that that kind of work flow management hasn't made it into the Mac OS X Finder.

Rescue: Glimmer Mode

One way to solve this problem is to logically group applications together that depend on spatial multi-tasking and trigger all of them to the foreground with a voice command. It's a kind of super-iPhone mode.  Right now, because of the way AppleScript events work, voice recognition is constrained to trigger events within an application. ( I could be wrong.)

For example, let's group the applications above spatially. That means apps that must be seen on the screen together to complete a task. This example is arbitrary, and your own set will be different.

Two-way Communications:

  • Apple Mail
  • Twitter
  • iChat

One-way Information and Editing

  • Vienna
  • Safari
  • BBEdit
  • Dictionary

People, Time and Events

  • Address Book
  • World Clock
  • Today (or iCal)

System and Filing

  • PathFinder
  • iStat

Graphics Work

  • Image Well
  • Preview
  • Graphic Converter
  • Keynote

Next, one ties a keyboard shortcut or a very simple voice command to each of these sets. When triggered, they all come to the foreground, and when dismissed they all disappear (not just move back, cluttering the screen.)

It would look like this if I said "Comm."


I Say "Comm" and the Suite Overlays Current Suite

Notice how a suite of apps, (Mail. Twitterific, iChat), in a pattern I can define, overlays the current suite of Safari and BBEdit. When I'm done, I say "Done," and the suite goes away.

Here's how saying "Time" would look in my case. It includes World Clock. Today, and iCal just as an example.

Glimmer - Time

When I say 'Time," a new Suite Overlays

I call this Glimmer Mode because suites of apps come to the front in the same layer, glimmer, do their job, then disappear completely.

The Legal Stuff

I get paid to come up with ideas, lots of ideas, so if an enterprising developer wants to create an app that supervises this kind of activity, I'd be pleased to see it. I think the technology is readily available in Mac OS X frameworks. If the current combination of OS X tools allows the user to concoct such a methodology, I'd like to hear about it. If not, I think it would be better if it were incorporated into the Mac OS X 10.7 (Lynx?) Finder. However, Apple may not want to to that because it would make extra displays unnecessary and eat into Apple's display sales. In the end, a developer may need to tackle it.

Let me know what you think.

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Kind of sounds like Spaces the way it should work, to me. Without going into a long schpeel, Spaces on its own is minimally useful to me (I only use two). I think it would be a lot more useful if it were task based - which I would sum up as groupings off applications - rather than spatially allocated. Apps that automatically move to a different Space depending on the “Task Groups” they’re assigned to, rather than limited to All or One Space.

It would also be nice if apps that appear when you hit command+tab, as well as the Dock work more closely in conjunction with Spaces as well.


You can already accomplish this with Spaces and Launchbar.  Create a space for every ‘glimmer’ that you want.  Assign applcations to those glimmers to always show up there.  Use Launchbar (or something equivalent) to jump to apps in that glimmer, or bind command keys to jump to specific glimmers.

The only issue I see is that a space doesn’t restrict the apps launched in it to just the ones you bind to it, so its not necessarily a perfect solution, but its gets you most of the way there.

Dirt Road

You could do that with a handful of AppleScripts (one for each task group) and a Dock folder. Each task group activator would tell Finder to hide all the other apps and then show/open the apps belonging to that task group. Or you could put it into a single “Task Group” app (with a fleet of warships as an icon, perhaps) and drag&drop;apps into it to assign them to each group.

The advantage of doing it that way is that you wouldn’t have to wait for 10.7; you could make it work with just about any version of OSX.


what’s wrong with spaces in leopard? It lets you actually do exactly that (without the voice commands, though)

John Martellaro

Not really.



I was about to write that I agree with SomeOtherGuy and Doug, but I want to understand you a little better.  IMO, by doing what Doug suggests, you’re most of the way there - without voice though.

Is what you’re saying (paraphrasing):  I don’t want to take the time to remember that “Space 2” is my “Time Space” or that “Comm” is my “Space 1” because it might break my concentration?

The reason I ask:  You wrote:  “logically group applications together that depend on spatial multi-tasking and trigger all of them to the foreground “

I do what you do - I use 4 Spaces, I have grouped applications into those 4 spaces as you have described - and with key #4 on my mouse i see the view of all spaces, and flip to the right one, or get to the space using keyboard shortcuts. 

I don’t understand how “Suite Overlays” are different than spaces, and have reread the article multiple times, other than it would be a “ready serve” spaces via voice without you having to click to certain spaces.  For me, the organization of the 4 spaces has become 2nd nature very quickly, and I have hotkeys set to use expose within those spaces - it works quite well.

Since I only have one space up at once, I don’t know why an extra monitor would have anything to do with it or not - I still would like one, and I’m not sure how what you’ve described would reduce your want for screen real estate.

Thanks for reading!


How about a ‘universal window’ (or as many as you like) that can be opened in the finder. Then within this window you could open an application as a Tab. You could then have a number of related apps within one window that could be minimised or used as and when you like.

Better still Just get Apple to implement Spaces properly. It has enormous potential but in its present state drives me mad, particularly with its inept handling of floating windows and inability to deal with having an application restricted to one space, sorry ranting now. I guess this might change in future…....

Mike Weasner

Glimmer is the way I think Spaces *should* work.  I have wanted to set up Spaces to work the way *I* work but then I always realize that it won’t satisfy me.  So I stick with my one display working space, sometimes supplemented with a second display.  On my MacBook Pro 17” I generally have enough screen real estate to work the way I want to work.  But sometimes Expos? or minimizing a window does get used.

We’ve come a long ways since the days of Mac OS 1.0 (pre-Switcher, for those that remember that).  Maybe someday, a more powerful iPhone will have its own Switcher, MultiFinder, or Spaces.


Donelleshi’s StickyWindows is a great addition to one’s window handling arsenal. It implements the old Mac OS function of moving a window to the edge, and it becomes a tab.

Combined with Spaces assigned to the middle mouse button, clicking opens the n window display of spaces, and clicking on any one takes you to that Space. I have spaces defined to map certain applications to certain Spaces, so that they are contextually similar, either in type or time/sequence contexts (glimmers).

Sticky Windows makes working in one window palatable .......


I think for this to really be effective it’s a prerequisite for Apple to offer increased resolution on displays smaller than 17”.  There’s absolutely no reason why the 15” Macbook Pro’s can’t offer an option for a higher resolution display.  The technology is available, and it’s clear from the forums that a huge number of customers would take the option were it made available.


John this is a great idea.  I hope that Apple or someone implements it.  However, if Apple fails to implement your idea because it chooses to preserve sales from displays over a feature, your idea, that enhances the experience of its users, Apple has a serious problem with the corruption of its cultural values that have led it to the success that it currently enjoys and would mean that Steve Jobs is already being greatly missed.



I think if they don’t implement John’s idea exactly as he states (it’s pretty close with spaces), it could be for an infinite number of reasons, so you’ll never know.

I don’t think links should be drawn between John’s ideas, corruption, and missing Steve Jobs though. 

I think Apple will do fine with or without him but it has nothing to do with whether they pick up John’s idea or not.  If Apple chooses not to enhance the experience of its users, it will fail eventually because not enhancing the user experience doesn’t make business sense, so I don’t think that’s anything to worry about, and no point planting that negative seed.



A super idea. One problem I have is managing my family’s finances. I use Quicken 2007 for the Mac that contains two accounts - Community and Personal. In addition, I keep a monthly budget spreadsheet for each account using Excel 2008. With the later, at the beginning of each month I have a set of items each having a predicted budget, say Mortgage, Food & Household, Medical, etc. When I write a check to say a grocery store, I enter it in the Quicken register and add the amount to the spent column of the Food & Household line. I get an immediate comparison between plan and actual.

I do everything manually because Quicken for the Mac is not capable of doing anything automatically. However, it would be nice to be able to say “Finance” and have all the appropriate apps open up.


I’ll just be happy that Apple would give back WindowShade. I rarely use any of the “new” solutions they’ve come up with. Most times I just want to see under a window. And I absolutely loathe moving windows to the Dock. Needless to say, I do okay since WindowShade is available by third party means. And to think that Apple champions simplicity and elegance.

It would be cool to be able to lock windows together to move in tandem. And it would be okay if a window would minimize to the dock, but you would access it by a right click on the application icon. (It wouldn’t actually show the window in the Dock per se.)


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