Let’s talk about Alt-Tab for a moment

Ready for more shortcuts? And a small rant?

These days, I find myself using a Windows computer far more often than I want to, and every day I am reminded of how much better the user interface that you get with Gnome running on Linux is than Windows XP. I can’t speak for Vista, but these annoying features of Windows XP were also true in Windows 9x and earlier versions.

Here is an example of an annoying event that happened to me the other day. My office is in a secure area. Therefore, if someone comes to see me they have to get past Roy or one of Roy’s assistants. That typically involves announcing yourself politely and if Roy thinks you’re maybe OK, he’ll call or IM me and let me know you are there. But as a backup, Roy or one of his assistants may also want to pop up my calendar (which is on the network) to see if you are expected.

Now, the truth is that Roy et al. don’t really do much with my Calendar, so this is not so important, but by routine, Roy asks me to authorize his new assistants when he gets them so they can see the calendar. Roy goes through a lot of assistants.

So last week I get an email from Roy with the names of three new assistants for authorization. So I go to Outlook and click around a bit until I have the dialog in which I need to enter their name. But I have not memorized the names, so I want to go back to the email. But the email is in Outlook too. I can’t click back to the email because I’ve got dialog boxes open in Outlook’s Calendar and outlook is also the email client.

So by a) combining the email and calender function into one and b) being a bunch of morons, Microsoft has made the simplest of tasks impossible. I can’t even open the email and then access it, the software is so finicky. What I can do is to copy and paste these names into another piece of software (such as notepad) and work it out that way. Lame.

Perhaps there are other better ways to get around this. But that is not the point. The point is that if I was using Evolution in Linux, this would not happen. I would not need to get around anything. This kind of thing cannot happen in Linux because Linux is not stoopid. It happens all the time in Microsoft Windows and applications because … alright, alright, you get the picture.

What does this all have to do with Alt-Tab? In both Windows and Gnome (and I’m guessing KDE, though I don’t know) Alt-Tab moves you through windows. But if you use Windows, you know that Alt-Tab fails miserably under a wide range of conditions including but not limited to the one I just described. As windows (including dialogs) open and close, the order and availability of Alt-Tab cycles becomes funky, illogical, and sometimes unworkable in Windows. I often work with 12 – 20 windows open at a time. Windows forces me to use the mouse for something I don’t need to use the mouse for. Indeed, the mouse is inadequate because fully half or more of those open windows are alternate instances of a browser or a word processor, and a ‘historically accurate’ alt-tab sequence will always get you where you need to do faster than hunting and pecking among buttons on the application bar.

I think that if the average Windows user was required to spend a few hours working with Gnome, they would be sad to return to Windows’ dialog box and window switching behavior. Very sad.

Having said all that, here are a few Gnome short cut keys for you to commit to memory and use from now on:

Alt + Tab
Switches between windows.
Alt + Esc
Switches between windows in reverse order.
Opens the first menu on the left side of the menubar.
Alt + spacebar
Opens the Window Menu .
Arrow keys
Moves the focus between items in a menu.
Chooses a menu item.
Closes an open menu.
Ctrl + Alt + arrows
Switches between workspaces.


  1. #1 Richard
    September 28, 2008

    While I don’t use Evolution because I find it painfully slow and bloated, I’ll note that you seem to have suffered a modal dialogue, and it’s not like they’re not present in Linux either. I do see fewer of them, though, and maybe it’s because sane people like yourself diligently unbreak applications obeying the silly paradigm.

  2. #2 lylebot
    September 28, 2008

    Windows alt-tab operates with a stack (at least as far as I can tell). The most recently used window is at the top, second-most recently used second, etc. I’m not a big Windows fan either, but I’ve always preferred Windows’ window-switching to the ones I’ve used in Linux. I use Linux quite a bit, but I haven’t been able to get any intuitive feel for how the window-switcher operates.

  3. #3 Ian
    September 28, 2008

    Shift-Alt-Tab takes you through the windows in reverse order.

    Vista will do this funny thing where it tiles all your open windows, and rotates them so that it’s like looking at a stack of index cards. I don’t know how useful it is, I don’t know if it has a keyboard shortcut…but it is pretty 🙂

  4. #4 greg laden
    September 28, 2008

    Lylbot: Windows ALT Tab switches between the last two windows you have open, but it changes the rules inappropriately so that you suddenly can’t get back to where you started. But most importantly, modal dialog boxes do not count as windows, which is annoying and absurd .

    The Linux window switcher simply switches between the last two open, unless you keep your finger down on the ALT tab, then it switches in historical (stack) order.

  5. #5 greg laden
    September 28, 2008

    Ian: Compiz on Linux does something similar but better. Stolen by Microsoft, I’m sure. And it gives you a backrub and brings you a beer.

  6. #6 lylebot
    September 28, 2008

    The Linux window switcher simply switches between the last two open, unless you keep your finger down on the ALT tab, then it switches in historical (stack) order.

    My Linux window switcher doesn’t work that way (I’m using Enlightenment desktop, not Gnome). It very often makes me take an intermediate step through a third window that I had been using a while ago but am not anymore. But it doesn’t always do that; sometimes it works the way I want it to (the way you describe). I really can’t figure it out. The Windows one, on the other hand, pretty much always does what I want it to.

  7. #7 Jay De Lanoy
    September 29, 2008

    Compiz (not Compriz 🙂 is great, but it “stole” the functionality from the Expos� in OS 10.3 and higher.

    I like both Compiz and Expos�, but this is one of those rare cases where I think the Mac version is more functional, and the Linux version is prettier.

    Vista’s, last I checked (although I have much less experience w/ it), is better than nothing, kind of like how Compiz and Beryl were around three or four years ago — although I’m less optimistic about rapid improvement than I was with Compiz and Beryl.

  8. #8 Flaky
    September 29, 2008

    This is indeed one of the annoying misfeatures of Outlook. Microsoft spends a lot of time and money on usability testing. I wonder why they still abuse modal dialogs like this. Maybe in their tests, many more users misplace/lose non-modal windows than there are those, who have a genuine need to switch between windows.

  9. #9 Flaky
    September 29, 2008

    Oh, and it annoys me greatly that Gnome doesn’t map the windows and menu keys to appropriate functions by default. Sure, they are symbols of Microsoft dominance on the PC market, but they’re still perfectly functional buttons on my keyboard.

  10. #10 David Marjanovi?
    September 29, 2008

    If you have any choice, don’t use Outlook for e-mails. Use Outlook Express instead. Outlook was a really bad idea, like Works.

  11. #11 Joseph
    September 29, 2008

    Windows key (on the EEE, “Home”; from here on out, “Penguin” 😉 + tab is alt-tab, but pretty. Shift-alt-tab goes though all windows on all desktops.

    With gnome-do, Windows+Space brings up gnome-do, which is (from what I understand; I’m not a mac guy) a lot like Quicksilver. Very awesome.

    Generally, Penguin+ does very cool stuff in Compiz, including Expos-like functionality, rain drops if you’re bored, etc.

    Oh, and Penguin+n to color a window in inverse color (nice for those of us who like dark screens) and Penguin+m inverts all windows (and yes, if you’ve previously inverted a window, it’ll be invert-invert the color; i.e. no-op 😉

    Very good stuff is afoot in Linux.

  12. #12 StuV
    September 29, 2008

    So Greg, you are saying that modal dialogs do not exist in Linux.

    Sure. Uh-huh. Nice try.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    September 29, 2008

    No, I’m not saying that they do not exist. I’m saying that they are very common in Windows, are used when not necessary, and are a huge problem. I know that you can program in Linux to have dialog boxes be modal or not, but it is actually fairly hard to find them on a day to day basis.

    They are found most often in “file open” similar contexts where they make a little bit of sense (and it happens that firefox does that, annoyingly, but not between instances of the browser). In windows they happen in utterly inappropriate contexts.

  14. #14 Bob
    September 30, 2008

    I think the big problem is that saying Windows is broken because Outlook uses the wrong kind of dialog isn’t really fair. Outlook could very easily be rewritten so that this problem does not exist, but that would not make Windows a better operating system. Just like Evolution could be written to cause this problem and it would be no reflection on the worth of Linux as an os.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    September 30, 2008

    So, Bob… this morning I opened he Microsoft Picture manager and said “Go find my pictures.” I then multitasked over to my network drive and was organizing some files there. Right in the middle of a freakin keystroke in doing that, MS Picture manager decides it is done and become the focus window.. as my finger is coming down on a key.

    Windows … the operating system …. regularly pops up things that I did not ask for, either changes if focus as I just noted or other notices. Windows … the operating system … seems to encourage modal dialog boxes even in what appear to act like multi-threaded applications.

    I stand by what I said above: Any normal human with a few hours on Gnome will not want to go back to Windows, because Windows is annoying.

  16. #16 Bob
    September 30, 2008

    Greg, again, that behavior is a product of the way Microsoft Picture manager was written. The coders decided that behavior was acceptable.

    Yes, Microsoft coding does seem to prefer modal dialog boxes, but that’s bad coding practice from MS.

    It’s like if I complained that the old “window focus follows mouse cursor” feature of Linux made Linux a bad os. It didn’t and that behavior really annoyed me when I started using Linux a long time ago. If you ever had typing move from one app to another because you bumped the mouse, you can see how that could be aggravating. But a lot of people seemed to love that feature. So much so that there was actually a Windows powertoy that made it so that window focus followed the mouse cursor.

    But that was merely a feature of the window managers of the time, not Linux. It could be turned off, and yes there are ways to turn off the problem you describe in Windows, but they aren’t obvious. And no, I haven’t done it, I just remember it used to be possible.

    Most of the time, apps for Windows behave nicely and use the taskbar to flash and show the user that something needs attention.

    A better criticism would be to compare the customization abilities of Gnome/Linux to Windows. But if you really want customizability, you should use KDE. 🙂