Defending Launchpad

Launchpad is one of the marquee features of Mac OS X Lion. It’s an app launcher that closely resembles an iOS device’s home screen. You can even create folders and arrange your icons, much as you do on an iPhone, iPod touch or an iPad. I like it, but many Mac veterans do not, dismissing it as a beginner’s tool.

I’d wager that “home users” get more use out of it than Mac veterans. I also feel that it does so spectacularly well. Apple has done a great job with Launchpad, and it’s easy to see how it benefits a huge number of users [1. Remember, geeks like you and me are the minority of Mac customers.]. Here are a few things Launchpad gets right.

Beyond alphabetical order

For years, the Applications folder has stored apps in alphabetical order. Other sort options are available, like modification date, size, kind and label. That’s great, but one very useful criteria has never been available: frequency. Launchpad lets you sort your app icons by frequency. For example, you can put your most frequently-used apps right on the first page or even in a folder. Likewise, move the apps you rarely use out of the way. For many users, “swipe-click” will be much faster than clicking through several folders to find an app.

A cluttered desktop without the clutter

I’ve met many computer users whose desktops are scattered with icons. Most of them aliases to applications and other files buried within the hard drive. Why do they keep these things scattered about the desktop? Convenience. Each is reachable with a click. Now, they can invoke a screen littered with app icons when it’s needed and dismiss it when it’s not.

No Applications folder

If you’ve worked with as many novice users as I have, you’ve probably heard this question: “Where is my Applications folder?” Remember, this stuff isn’t second nature to a huge number of people. Launchpad provides a simple answer: “It’s a swipe away.” No matter where you are, what application is open or what you’re looking at, you are a single gesture away from the contents of your Applications folder.

Simple because it should be

Many of you pine for a more robust Launchpad. Documents would be nice, maybe folders, or even Dropbox integration. If you need those things, check out LaunchBar or my beloved Alfred. Launchpad is an introduction to the idea of an app launcher for those who aren’t used to one. Apple will add to it when it’s darn good and ready. For now, it’s just what it should be. Effective and simple.

At Ease: Launchpad’s grandfather

At Ease was an alternative to the Mac Finder’s Desktop, developed by Apple in the 1990’s. It was meant to give new and young users one-click access to applications and documents they used most often, while restricting access to others. At Ease supported tabbed, color-coded browsing of software, files and removable media. An At Ease administrator could manage document sharing between account holders and other user-specific access privileges. An advanced workgroup version offered features like client configuration and network access control. Back when I worked at a Mac-friendly school, we used At Ease on several classroom machines.

It’s interesting to note that At Ease introduced multiple users to the Mac OS. It was released when Macs were running System 7, which did not support multiple users. However, At Ease’s multiple-user feature let folks log in with their credentials and create documents that would be hidden from other users. Of course, the Mac OS gained built-in support for multiple users with Mac OS 9.

Today I see aspects of At Ease in Launchpad, one of Mac OS X Lion’s marquee features. The tabs and document support are gone, as well as a UI that commandeers the Finder, but the single-click access to favorite apps is in place. In fact, even iOS shows the family resemblance with its no-frills, touch-to-open UI.

Launchpad certainly isn’t At Ease II, but it’s fun to step back and observe the evolution of Apple technology.