Regarding Command-Tab

Proteron made a mistake with their open letter to Apple, implying that they deserved credit for application-switching on the Mac, and that Apple stole the idea (or at least the implementation) from them and included it in Panther.

Some History

If you have Mac OS X 10.3, you can now toggle through your active applications using the Command-Tab key combo (holding down Command while hitting tab). Pretty pictures of your running apps make it easy to see what you’re switching to. It’s an easy, simple thing that makes life much easier. Although it’s been a part of the operating system for a while, in the past the implementation was quite poor.

Back in the days of Mac OS 8 when application toggling was really bad, The Narrator used a product called ProgramSwitcher. It looked and worked a lot like like Windows, but had more features. It was better than the Windows version. Things were good.

Sub-Par Switching

When OS X first premiered, Apple provided a piss-poor command-tab application switching mechanism. As you toggled, applications would be selected — in seemingly random order — in the Dock. It was terrible.

It was so poor in fact (especially when compared to the Microsoft Windows implementation, where Apple borrowed the idea) that the door was wide open to third-party developers.

So Proteron made LiteSwitchX, which worked just like the application-switching functionality provided by ProgramSwitcher, and like Windows before it. Proteron did a good job on the interface, making it look just like a part of Mac OS X. And they came up with a bunch of innovative features which your Narrator (and most of his friends) didn’t care about or use. They all just wanted application switching with Command-tab like Windows users had since 3.1.

So the Narrator purchased a copy of LiteSwitch X. Things were good.

Apple Gets It Right

And then Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther) came out and, at long last, Apple got the application switching part right. It’s perfectly integrated, both in look and feel, with the rest of the OS. Looks like any good Mac app should. Provides basic application switching functionality, with pretty pictures to show you where you are.

While Apple did build a nice switching mechanism into Panther, they didn’t steal the idea for it from Proteron. Apple didn’t steal it from ProgramSwitcher, either. Apple’s implementation came straight out of the Windows world, without question.

Chris Clark presents an excellent analogy:

If Mac OS X started shipping with a manual, would David Pogue write a New York Times article about how Apple has stolen his livelihood?

There’s no argument that the Proteron switcher has many more features and capabilities than Apple’s latest implementation. Proteron’s switcher also came out before Apple’s switcher, and just like any good OS X app, it looked like part of Mac OS X. But Proteron didn’t invent application switching or this particular implementation. Windows invented it a long time ago, and everyone since is copying Microsoft.

Proteron’s Mistake

Sure, Proteron’s implementation — at least in robustness of features — is better than Apple’s. But writing an open letter to Apple about it (as if trying to “rally the troops”) when the issue is this clear is just a Bad Idea™. It hurts the part of their customer-base who know the real story. Many of us who qualify for the free, Panther-compatible will no longer want it. Some of us won’t be coming back.

Further Reading

Gruber explains the whole issue better than the Narrator has. Kevin Fox has a piece up about the issue (with a nice discussion going on). And it even seems like there was application switching on the Mac way back in 1985.

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