Apple WWDC22 Impressions Part 2

Having started with an overview of WWDC22 and thoughts about the iPhone’s new Lock Screen customization, I continue with what might be the most impactful feature from Apple this year.

Stage Manager – Mac

While the iPhone as webcam is somewhat impressive looking, I think Stage Manager will be more impactful. And since my iPad lacks the M1 chip, I’m more interested in Stage Manager’s potential on my M1 MacBook Air.

At first, I thought Apple simply took Stacks (the feature for auto-grouping like-files on the Desktop) and applied it to open app windows. I also thought of Groups, like Tab Groups in Safari, but App Groups on the Desktop. Then Craig Federighi used the term “Pile” instead of Stack. Well, whatever they’re called, it’s a new thing.

I’m very intrigued, eager to try Stage Manager for myself. After watching some review videos of the beta feature, I don’t think I’ll know if it’s great or not until I use it daily in real-world practice. It looks cool in a demo, with app windows minimizing to a skewed area like a vertical Cover Flow presentation, but how does it really help with juggling multiple apps that are typically scattered on the Desktop? And how is “minimizing” or swapping an app window to the Stage different from minimizing it to the Dock??

Curiously, this robust new multi-tasking feature is in additionto similar features already established on macOS. Will Apple keep the current app-juggling methods so people can pick their favorite? Or will Apple eventually phase out previous paradigms? While the former provides flexibility, it results in more complexity. Generally, that’s not the best idea, and with Apple, that’s not typical. The company tends to simplify things, picking “the one best” way.

As things are now with macOS, I enjoy handling several open apps at once via Mission Control and Spaces. Normally, I use Spaces in Full Screen mode when I want to focus or maximize the 13.3″ display’s real estate. Then I use three-finger gestures to swipe between Spaces or apps. It works great. But I also like the traditional way of just leaving app windows open on the desktop where I can click each one, resize them, and drag-n-drop files in or out or between apps and the desktop. When doing the latter, Spaces doesn’t really work. Enter Stage Manager, stage left?

When I saw the tech demo swap apps in a pile (group) and then between piles, with the left side of the desktop full of new visual cues, I thought instead of simplifying things, the Desktop was more cluttered and complicated. With a “Stage” on the left, why is there still a “Dock” on the bottom? The Dock now seems superfluous with its ungrouped app icons just sitting there. Also, I have yet to see if there are any new multi-touch gestures to control Stage Manager. Will there be new ones to learn, forming more muscle memory?

As Stage Manager has put a spotlight on Mac multi-tasking, I have begun looking more closely at the Mac’s current solutions. For example, minimizing app windows to the dock. Did you know there’s a setting in System Preferences that lets app windows minimize to their app icons in the Dock instead of the dedicated minimized app window area on the right part of the Dock? I don’t use this option as it seems unhelpful; if the app window isn’t minimized where I can see it, then it might as well be closed.

I like seeing the app windows I’ve minimized neatly aligned in their dedicated area. It’s a distinct visual cue that I have apps I’m working in but have “paused” for a moment. I know exactly where to look when I need to maximize one as they’re not hidden behind other app windows open on the desktop. Since I leave the Dock unhid, the app windows remain unhid too. But if I leave the app windows open on the desktop, hidden behind others, I must either click an app icon that shows the black dot (indicating it’s running) or use Mission Control to clearly show all open app windows. I often use the latter method because it’s easier for me to see the actual app windows I have open; sometimes an app is running but it has no open windows.

So this is about managing open-windows more than running-apps. Very similar to minimized app windows on the right side of the Dock, Stage Manager clearly shows open app windows in a dedicated area, left of the desktop. What might make it better is that it also groups open app windows however you want. I like how this setup allows many open app windows to stay visible without cluttering the desktop.

It seems that Stage Manager is an interesting way to combine the use cases and benefits of everything that’s come before: Mission Control, Expose, Spaces, the Dock, and the Desktop, for example. If that is what this new feature is intended to be – the be-all, end-all of multi-tasking – and if it actually works as advertised, then I think Apple has developed a clear new winner. How will it be known if Stage Manager becomes the new default? Idea: if it replaces the hardware button on my Mac keyboard; the F3 key, with its three-rectangle icon, is currently for Mission Control.

In any case, I’m excited for software updates and applaud Apple for innovating. I look forward to seeing how the new feature performs on stage when I shine the spotlight on it later this year.

Now, onto a few other little things, coming soon in WWDC22 Impressions Part 3.

What do you think about Stage Manager on Mac? What about on iPad? What would you change?