System Menu vs. Global Floater

October 18, 2009


In Mac User Interface parlance, a System Menu is any menu on the main menu bar.  The AirPort status menu shown below (to the right of the TopXNotes QuickNotes floating window) is an example.

QuickNotes window (left) and Airport System Menu (right)

There are several alternatives to the System Menu to provide instant access from the desktop to a list.  The one we will examine is the combination of a global floating window with dropdown menu I designed for the application TopXNotes.  It is shown below with its list of “QuickNotes” (selected by the user) extended.


A System Menu, has, by virtue of being a menu in a fixed menu bar, Consistent User Interface, or CUI.  That is on goes back to that same spot on the screen always for the same item. TopXNotes QuickNotes feature also has CUI, since the list of notes designated QuickNotes always drop from the QuickNotes floating window, and because TopXNotes remembers its location, it will not only be consistent, it is consistent at a location chosen by the user.


In both the System Menu and in TopXNotes, usage is the same, “instant desktop access”.   For the Mac OS System Menus, they save several steps over opening Apple’s Mac OS X System Preferences and navigating to the Preference to adjust.  For TopXNotes, the QuickNotes menu provides instant desktop access to our customer’s most important information.  One thing it does not provide is getting lost in the clutter of System Menus with all the Apple and other System Menus in the main Mac menu bar.  Our customers really like this feature and MacWorld’s four mouse review called it our “killer feature”

For more details on QuickNotes, visit TopXNotes.


A Brief History of System Menus

October 17, 2009

Throughout the existence of the Mac developers have been fascinated with hacking Apple’s user interface elements to place their own flavor of the element as they prefer, not as Apple preferred.  The Apple Menu Bar has perhaps been the favorite place for hacking into going back to very early versions of the Mac OS.  I remember one of my early experiences with a Mac was at the University of Houston where someone had infected the Menu bar with the MBAR virus.  It moved the entire menu left do the File and Edit menu were not accessible.  Thus one could not quit an application easily or save ones work.

For the most part though, developers were not malicious in hacking  the menu bar.  Developers just wanted a place equal to Apple’s in the exalted top row of the UI for the convenience of their customers who obviously would want a menu of the developer’s application there because, well “who could possible NOT want MY application!???”  (We developers can be egotistcal.)

Apple didn’t take well to developers hacking into the Menu Bar and would often chastise developers for placing anything up there.  To do so, in the old days, developers had to hack a system menu into the system’s menu bar resources.  The manager for one version of the Mac OS once told me at WWDC meeting that no matter how safely we hacked the Menu Bar, that Apple would sooner or later break the hack, so we should stay out of the Menu Bar.  It was Apple’s territory, not for mere independent developers.

Later, tiring of all the different approaches, many of which were dangerous and buggy, an Apple engineer finally published an Apple standardized way of doing one.  We used it when I supervised the port of ViaVoice from PC to Mac for IBM.  Apple even helped us with issues we had with it because, well, it was for IBM.

Then Mac OS X almost immediately made the approach extinct.