By Dan Moren
September 11, 2020 2:04 PM PT
Command performance: Mission Control
One of the reasons I still gravitate toward my Mac for most of my working needs is its unparalleled implementation of multitasking—it’s one place that the iPad still hasn’t really caught up, in my opinion. The Mac, of course, has been doing multitasking in one way or another for thirty-plus years, and in that time, while it’s gotten more powerful, it’s also gotten more overwhelming. You can be running a dozen apps on your Mac at the same time, never mind all the little programs running beneath the surface. How do you keep track of everything that’s going on?
Well, if you’re Apple, you make a feature that lets you get a top-down view of all your open windows. In 2003, as the company was introducing Mac OS X 10.3 Panther1, it showed off what it then called Exposé2. The idea was simple: hit a keystroke and all of your windows would shrink down and appear as little thumbnails, carefully laid out so as not to overlap; another key would show you just the windows for the foreground app. Yet a third would let you clear all the windows away so you could quickly access the desktop.
In the last seventeen years, Exposé has changed in some ways. Most notably, its name has undergone some revisions; currently it’s part of Mission Control, where it was originally grouped with features like the now departed Dashboard and Spaces. But the core of what the feature does has remained consistent from introduction until now, and it’s still one of the Mac features that I use every single day, often without even thinking about it. That’s become even more the case in the modern era of Mac computing, where we tend to rely on trackpads rather than mice. The Mission Control functionality was one of the earliest use cases of multitouch gestures on the Mac, and to this day, I still use the three- and four-finger swipes on my trackpad to activate these features.
Yes, some of these features are things that you can do in other ways. Want to find a specific window? You could command-tab to the associated app and then cycle through the available windows with command-tilde (if the app supports it). But why bother when a quick swipe and click can do the job for you? To me, there’s a simplicity to it; my brain doesn’t even have to think about which application a window belongs to when I can just see the thumbnail of what I’m looking for.
Moreover, Mission Control lets you bring only a single application window to the foreground, which I find immensely handy when I want to refer to something in one app while writing something in another. Too often, if I use the keyboard shortcuts, other windows from the app I’m bringing to the foreground end up blocking the window I was writing in, and I’ve just made my own life harder.
But Mission Control goes beyond just getting that bird’s-eye view of which windows are open. For example, when I record Clockwise every week, I set up a separate desktop space for just the tools I need while podcast: Safari, Audio Hijack, Skype, Discord, and so on. To create a new desktop I need to use Mission Control, but as long as I’m in there, I just drag the windows of the apps I need into thumbnail of the space I’ve just created.
Likewise, Mission Control’s Show Desktop functionality is something that I use every single day in order to get files off my desktop, drop them in other folders, or in email messages, or even upload them to websites. While something similar can be achieved by going into the Finder and hiding all other apps, the advantage of Mission Control is that it can be done as a single fluid movement, without removing my hand from the trackpad. I also appreciate that Mission Control style features have begun to make their way elsewhere too: Safari, for example, features a top-down look at all your open tabs, accessible via command-shift-backslash. And the latest version of iPadOS’s multitasking feature surely takes some inspiration from it as well, even if its implementation isn’t quite as nuanced as Mission Control.
Even today, macOS continues to evolve, almost twenty years after its introduction, but I’m gratified that Mission Control has remained a staple feature over most of that time. It’s still one of the capabilities that I find myself lacking whenever I sit down at another computing device; I’ve definitely caught myself trying to use my gestures on Windows PCs that I’ve used. The good news is, from what I’ve seen of Big Sur, Mission Control appears to not be going anywhere, and I’ll certainly be continuing to use it—even if in my head, I always still think of it as Exposé.
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @email@example.com or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is now available for pre-order.]