MacOS Ventura’s best feature is 16 years in development

Apple unveiled the upcoming Stage Manager as part of MacOS Ventura at WWDC 2022. The feature, created to improve productivity and make it easier to switch between groups of apps, certainly looks like it could become a staple.

Although Stage Manager seems to be brand new, it seems that its concept has been around for much longer than we thought. According to a former Apple developer, Stage Manager was first created in 2006. How much has it changed since then?

The surprising peek into the past comes from TechReflect, a blogger with more than 30 years of experience in technology and nearly 20 years at Apple. The blog post takes us back in time to 2006 when a team of developers worked together on a project that was amusingly codenamed “shrinkydink”, also known as “always on exposition”.

The project was eventually abandoned, much to the dismay of the developer, who continued to use it until it finally stopped working alongside new software upgrades. Even though the “always-on expose” was scrapped at the time, it appears Apple hasn’t given up on the idea, as it resurfaced in 2022, 16 years after its inception.

As a reminder, Stage Manager is a productivity and window management tool. We tried it out for ourselves, and even in its first beta it managed to impress us. It lets you group different windows together and place them on the left side of your screen, making it easy to switch between not just tabs of an individual app, but entire groups of apps together. More importantly, you can divide an application’s open windows into different groups, such as using one Safari window in one group and another in a different group. In terms of productivity, it looks like it could be a game-changer once it gets to the live version of macOS.

As the developer who worked on the feature described in 2006, “it was a radical new way to manage applications and windows and effectively rendered the existing Exposé irrelevant, as well as the Dock, as a means Management functioning applications and windows. This, word for word, sounds like a description of what the stage manager is capable of. This leads us to wonder how closely related these two features are, and the answer is that they are quite close. Think brothers and sisters, not cousins, rather close.

Let’s start with the similarities. Stage Manager and its much older sibling support positioning and sizing of all windows, which greatly simplifies window management. Both also display app groups on the left side of the screen, and both allow you to view multiple apps at once.

Apple's Stage Manager prototype.

However, there are also some changes. With Stage Manager, Apple got rid of something “shrinkydink” provided – it displayed windows on the right side of the screen. These windows were not the first of a group but were always part of it. As such, you can easily switch between groups and windows within a certain group.

As the screenshot provided by TechReflect shows, the visuals of the two apps are very similar. Sure, 2022’s MacOS Ventura looks much more streamlined and smoother than its older sibling, but the concept hasn’t changed too much over the years, although Apple’s designs and aesthetic choices have. The absence of windows on the right side of the screen marks the main difference between the two applications.

TechReflect’s blog post marks an interesting discovery and gives us some unexpected insight into how Apple works. Although 16 years have passed, Stage Manager has finally seen the light of day – and it sounds every bit as exciting as it could have been in 2006.

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Steven L. Nielsen