When Windows 95 came out, one of the main interface improvements was the taskbar running along the bottom of the screen. Previously, windows just kind of floated around and could get lost if they were hidden behind other windows. The taskbar gave a simple, visual way of seeing all the open windows, even when they were minimised or covered up by another window. And it was an easy, mouse-driven way of switching to a particular window.
The taskbar became a staple of Microsoft’s desktop operating systems all the way up to Windows 7. The first versions of Linux that I used, running either the GNOME or KDE desktops, also had a taskbar, clearly inspired by the one in Windows.
I quickly became accustomed to using the taskbar to mentally keep track of what I was working on. I tend to have several windows open at the same time, and I’m constantly switching between them. Many development tasks involve using several applications at a time: a code change in a text editor here, a build in a console there, check the results in the browser and then make some notes in a document. Just like different sheets of paper laid out on a table, I like to have an at-a-glance way of seeing all the windows I’ve got open, and the icons for each window on the taskbar do this really well.
Windows 8 turned off the taskbar by default: the first thing I did when I got a new Windows 8 PC at work was to turn it back on again! Apple’s OS X, as far as I know, never really had a taskbar. Instead it has a ‘launcher’ as a way of starting commonly used applications. Ubuntu introduced their Unity interface which replaced the taskbar with a launcher too. The closest these things come to a list of open windows is a tiny highlight next to applications that are running. But if you have multiple windows for each application you have no way of seeing them separately. The launcher is a way of organising applications (just as the Start Menu was when that was introduced in Windows 95), but the taskbar is a way of organising windows. And organising windows is how I organise my work. By removing the taskbar, they’ve taken away an important way for me to keep my work organised!
Although I’ve seen developers work without a taskbar, managing multiple windows with Alt-Tab and other shortcut combinations, I still find the visual layout of windows on the taskbar best. With Alt-Tab I always find myself tabbing past the window I want and having to go around again, especially when the order of items changes based on which window you used last.
It seems to be getting harder and harder to find a desktop operating system that offers a taskbar by default. I suppose the reasoning behind the decline of the taskbar is that most users don’t work the way I do: they do one thing at a time, and so a taskbar is unnecessary for them. And the rise of tablets, where you tend to use one application at a time, makes the taskbar seem like a relic from the past.
I hope the taskbar doesn’t die out completely. Perhaps we’re just in a transitional phase. For a long time, computers were used by those creating things, but with tablets and other simplified desktop experiences, it has become more about consuming. That’s fine, but we may eventually find that there’s a divergence between the operating systems used by creators and those used by consumers. I don’t miss the taskbar on my phone because there I’m a consumer. But sat at my desk, doing real work, I need to rock the taskbar!