Apps we can't live without: DragThing

For many people—particularly those who’ve come to the Mac after first using an iOS device—there was and always has been Mac OS X. Before that… darkness. In truth, Apple has left a long trail of OS revisions in its wake—from System 1.x to Mac OS 9.x. (Apple changed its OS naming scheme from System This to Mac OS That when it moved from System 7.5 to Mac OS 7.6.) In these earlier days of the Mac’s operating system you couldn’t fling a brick in any compass direction without hitting some utility that attempted to make that operating system better (or more attractive or, in far too many cases, goofier).

For those who weren’t there, the pre-OS X Mac OS was quite a different beast. Oh sure, you still double-clicked this and dragged that, but things we take for granted just didn’t exist in those days. What, you want your Mac to operate for an entire day without crashing? Dreamer. You say you’d like to share a printer with the other computers in your home? Take a class. Broadband? Is 2400 baud broad enough for you, buddy? In short, powerful and cool though my Power Mac 6100 and, later, Power Computing Power Tower 180e, seemed at the time, the Mac OS was still on the clumsy side.

Third-party developers made some interesting efforts to deal with that clumsiness. Under Mac OS 9 and earlier, those developers had greater opportunities to muck with the Finder and low-level functions on the Mac. You could slap themes on your Mac sixteen ways to Sunday, use ResEdit to place the ugliest fonts imaginable in the menu bar, and, oh, those flying toasters. One of the areas that developers found particularly interesting was application launching. In those dockless days, launching an application was pretty tedious: Dig down into one folder or another, double-click the item you sought, and you were on your way.

Like many people I used Now Utilities and its Now Menus component, which placed hierarchical menus within the Apple menu. (Yes, this was a really big deal at the time). And while that was a better solution than rooting around in one folder or another seeking a favorite application, it still required a fair bit of mousing around and dealing with menus that could be quite clumsy.

What's Up, Dock?

It was around this time that dock utilities became popular. Aladdin Software (makers of StuffIt) had one as did (I believe) Now. And there were plenty more. Similar to the dock you find in today’s Mac OS X, these tools allowed you to place your favorite applications in an always-present window and launch them with a single click. (With OS 9, Apple instituted its own single-button launching utility aptly called Launcher.) I tried every dock utility I could lay my hands on. I believe it was our own Jason Snell (he was about 8 years old at the time) who one day suggested, “If you’d like a dock launcher, you should take a look at DragThing.”

In those days, it was available as shareware and could be downloaded from James Thomson’s site, so I gave it a go. I liked what I saw, and for a variety of reasons. First, it was quite flexible. Beyond being a way to launch applications with a single click, the docks you created could be used to access or launch a variety of items—folders, devices on a local network, servers, URLs, and so on. And you could create multiple docks. In my case, I created one dock for my currently running applications and another for applications I used routinely. The Macs I use today employ that same configuration.

And developer James Thomson kept up with it. Unlike with lot of these utilities, Thomson didn’t sell it to a large company or give up on it. Instead he supported and added more features to the utility. Among those features was the ability to launch items via keyboard shortcuts, store and retrieve text clippings, save docks as drawers that pop-out when you move your cursor to the edge of the screen, and allow you to preview certain kinds of files from within a hierarchical menu.

I expected DragThing to disappear with the birth of OS X and its accompanying Dock. And, for a time, I lived without it in an attempt to make do with OS X’s Dock. But I was spoiled. I liked having multiple docks, and OS X gave me just one. I enjoyed being able to throw a dock anywhere I wanted on screen—perhaps even on a second monitor (something I still do today). OS X’s Dock restricted me to one of the primary monitor’s four edges.

Given how unimpressed I was with the Dock, I was more than pleased when DragThing eventually shipped in an OS X-compatible version. My DragThing docks were back, along with the workflow I was so comfortable with. Better yet, Thomson catered to the whims of this long-time Mac user by allowing me to place the Trash back on the desktop where it rightly belonged. And his support for OS X didn’t stop there. He additionally added support for OS X’s Aqua graphics, which allowed me to make my docks transparent, thus displaying rows of small icons seemingly suspended in air.

Not a Drag

So, where do DragThing and I stand today? Like a lot of other DragThing users, it remains one of those utilities that I install almost immediately after setting up a new Mac. When initially configuring it I use three main docks: The Process dock shows all currently running applications. I use it to quickly eyeball what’s currently running as well as a tool for rapidly switching to other running applications.

My Favorites dock is where I place applications, volumes, servers, Automator workflow applications, and folders I routinely use. (Those folders include Applications, Utilities, my Home folder, the Documents folder, and the DropBox folder that lives inside my user’s Public folder.)

The Process dock's configuration screen.

I also have an Important Stuff dock which contains folders where I toss files after I’ve finished with them. For instance, I have folders for Macworld Stuff, Podcasts, Pictures, Macworld Videos, Music, Presentations, and Outside Projects. The originals of these folders are scattered across multiple drives and storage devices attached to my Mac.

When configuring DragThing, I shrink the dock’s icons so that they’re large enough to be recognized but small enough that I can fit a lot of them in a row—currently they’re set at 25 by 25 pixels. I hide the window title bar, names, and tabs. Again, the idea is to show only the icons. Within the Visibility tab I enable the Use Translucency option and set the slider to 100 percent transparent so that nothing other than the icons are seen. In the Advanced tab I enable the Use Single-Click to Open Items option, which does just that—let’s me click just once to engage a dock object.

The ability to preview items from within DragThing’s hierarchical menus is more than a little handy.

I also configure a couple of universal options. I do this by opening the General preference and in the Switching area I enable the Hide Other Applications When Switching option (as well as the Only Hide When Switching Using DragThing). With these options enabled, whenever I click on an application in the Process dock, any other open applications are hidden. But if I want those applications to remain visible, I instead use OS X’s Command-Tab shortcut to move between applications. In the Sounds tab I’ve enabled Use DragThing Sounds. This ensures that I know that something’s really happened when I click on a dock item. Finally, I click the Trash tab and ensure that the Show Trash on Finder Desktop item is enabled.

I’m so accustomed to having DragThing on my Macs that I forget that it’s not part of the OS. It’s only when I’m speaking to a group (in person or virtually), show my Mac’s screen, and someone pipes up, “What are all those docks on your desktop?” that I’m reminded how much DragThing is ingrained in my computing life.

Although DragThing and I have traveled a long and nearly constant road together, it's not an exclusive relationship. I use LaunchBar to launch applications and open documents that I don’t touch often enough to add to a DragThing dock. And unless I really want to clear the decks by hiding other applications, I’ll often switch between apps using the Command-Tab keyboard shortcut. But old—and helpful—habits are tough to break. And I am thoroughly accustomed to having DragThing around.

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