By Dan Moren
April 15, 2022 10:04 AM PT
Spaces: The final frontier
For as long as the Mac has had overlapping windows, it’s come up with ways to manage them. Everything from zoom controls to window shades to turning folders into tabs at the edge of your windows1—seems like the Mac’s tried it all.
But I’m going to take this opportunity to call out a window management feature that’s still chugging away but that I believe is under-appreciated in modern macOS: Spaces.
Spaces has a long history, stretching back to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, released in 2006. But it wasn’t really a new idea in computing: the concept of virtual desktops had existed more or less since the advent of the graphical interface in the 1980s popping up in a variety of other operating systems, though perhaps most prominently in the classic X Window System that ran on top of Unix and other similar OSes.2
Though other features related to Spaces, such as Dashboard and Exposé, have died or “evolved” over the years, Spaces has stuck around, though you could argue that it’s actually become less capable in the interim. For example, the earliest version of Spaces on the Mac let you arrange up to 16 virtual desktops in a grid of columns and rows. The modern implementation, which along with Exposé has been bundled into Mission Control since 2011’s Mac OS X 10.7, only lets you have a single long row of virtual desktops, which is not only less practical at times, effectively making it harder to access a large number of desktops, but let’s face it: less cool.
In truth, Spaces has languished on the Mac, and as it’s a feature I use pretty much every day, I find that a shame. Spaces is, to me, an indispensable an organizational tool, as it’s an easy, ad-hoc way to break out specific tasks that might involve a variety of apps.
For example, if I’m recording a podcast, I’ll open a new space with the specific apps I need for that show, such as Audio Hijack, Zoom, Notes, and a Safari window. That helps me avoid distraction from other apps that might want my attention, much in the same way that Apple’s newer Focus mode does, but it also helps get me into the correct headspace for the task at hand. (Another Spaces-related feature, full-screen mode, is handy for writing tasks when I don’t want to be distracted by anything else at all, especially when combined with a Focus mode.)
One benefit of Spaces is the ease of switching back and forth between desktops, which can be done either with simple keyboard shortcuts—control-right-arrow or control-left-arrow—or via three-finger swipe gestures to the left or right. (The addition of those gestures is probably one reason Apple decided to get rid of the grid layout, since the three-finger up and down swipes are used for other Mission Control features.)
Apps can be assigned to a specific desktop, all desktops, or no desktop via a context menu on that app in the dock.3 And it’s even possible to move a window to a space by simply dragging the window to the appropriate edge of the screen or, my favorite, clicking and holding on the title bar and then using the aforementioned keyboard shortcuts to move the whole desktop around it, then plopping the window down in its new home.
But one significant issue with Spaces is that some of the interface choices for managing them are, well, terrible. The only way to create a new Space is to activate Mission Control, mouse up to the top of the screen, and click the Plus button wayyyy over on the right-hand edge of the screen.4 To call that “discoverable” is an insult to credit cards, Star Trek shows, and TV networks everywhere. You will never see a Spaces-related item in any menu in macOS, and there are no keyboard shortcuts to create or remove spaces either.
Moreover, this leads to my biggest frustration in regards to Spaces—perhaps unsurprising to regular readers of this site—automation. Not only are there zero Spaces-related actions available in Shortcuts, but even creating new spaces using AppleScript is a complicated kludge, at best.
This has stymied some of my attempts to automate my work habits, since the best solution I’ve found has been to actually automate control of the pointing device to trigger Mission Control and click that New Space button, which is absolutely inane. As a result, I’ve just ended up sticking with my tried and true manual management of Spaces; it’s less finicky.
Now, it’s quite likely that Apple doesn’t get a lot of feedback on Spaces these days, and thus hasn’t really prioritized its development. But it’s equally possible that people aren’t using it because Apple has buried the feature and made it difficult to automate. I get it, Spaces is kind of weird: you end up with all these desktops that have different windows and sometimes disparate apps, even though there’s always the same desktop hanging out back there. But Apple hasn’t shied away from these kinds of complexities before: both Sidecar and even Universal Control have a kind of weird feeling to them, and the company has jumped on those bandwagons wholeheartedly.5
What worries me is that this attitude of “good enough” might bleed over to other Apple organizational features, which will suffer the same fate as Spaces. For example, Safari’s Tab Groups, introduced last year, also can’t be controlled in Shortcuts nor, as far as I know, in Apple Script. Not only is that a feature that’s much more prominent, and might get used by more people, but it’s brand spanking new.
I won’t say I’m hopeful that Apple will add Shortcuts access to Tab Groups in this year’s updates, but if they do, would it be too much to ask to lavish a little love on Spaces too? There’s at least one person who would appreciate it.
- Not gonna lie: kind of miss this. ↩
- Fun story: X11 actually used to be an app included in Mac OS that you could run as a kind of alternative windowing system. What a weird world the early days of Mac OS X were. ↩
- One indicator of the lack of attention paid to this feature is that the terminology used to refer to it is inconsistent. In the contextual menus on the dock, you’ll see references to “desktops” but in the Mission Control pane of System Preferences, they’re still referred to as “Spaces.” 🤷 ↩
- Well, maybe part-heartedly in the case of Sidecar. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is now available for pre-order.]