The Menu Bar Blues: Should Menu Bar Only Apps Die?

Posted by | September 21, 2011 | Apps | No Comments

I used to absolutely love menu bar apps. Years ago, it was a fairly tiny niche of the Mac app market that contained only a few really solid gems. These utilities provided a quick and easy way to control iTunes, run a quick maintenance script and get back to what you were doing.

At heart, menu bar apps were essentially thought to be little things that perhaps didn’t quite merit a full on application but still merited a permanent, always-on spot on your Mac. Things have changed though and I find myself becoming annoyed when I download an app and find that it has no alternative to the menu bar mode.

Should developers move past the trend of offering menu-bar-only apps in favor of giving users the power to decide? Let’s discuss.

Pros and Cons

In recent years, the menu bar app market has exploded. What was once a handful of utilities is now an impressively large secondary app market. As a Mac user, I see both pros and cons to this rapid expansion. Let’s take a quick look at both sides.

Why Menu Bar Apps Rock

The positive side of having more menu bar apps available is simple: there’s more to choose from! If Apple’s App Store experiments have proven anything it’s that, in the minds of most users, more is better.

Whether you’re looking for a todo app, a fully featured email client, somewhere to store notes or quick access to a web service, there are likely a handful of menu bar apps to get you there. Here at AppStorm, we love them so much that we recently posted a roundup of 25 such utilities.

Interestingly enough, in my opinion, menu bar apps have almost entirely stolen the thunder from Dashboard widgets. If you think about it, conceptually the two types of apps are very similar and almost redundant. In the short term, Dashboard widgets came with a lot of hype and grabbed a lot of attention but with time we’ve come to see that they have a fatal flaw: out of sight, out of mind.

Menu bar apps are always visible, no matter where you are in OS X. This makes it very easy to remember to take advantage of them. Dashboard on the other hand is relegated to a side screen that we can easily go weeks or even months without seeing.

Further, it seems that developers jumped ship on Dashboard widgets initially in favor of the iPhone App Store and more recently in favor of the Mac App Store. The distinction here is important: Dashboard apps are traditionally distributed free and can’t currently be sold on the Mac App Store while menu bar apps can easily fetch a few bucks at the least and are quite popular on the Mac App Store.

From these arguments we can see that menu bar apps have a clear advantage over Dashboard widgets both in the eyes of users and developers.

Why Menu Bar Apps Suck

Now, for all their amazing benefits and convenience, it’s easy to see some downsides as well. The most obvious and frustrating of these comes from having too many menu bar apps and too little screen space.

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Menu bar apps are cut off by menu options

The example above first shows all the various apps running in my menu bar if I’m looking at the Finder app. However, if I switch to Safari, some of these become inaccessible. This problem completely defeats the usefulness of menu bar apps. Rather than being handy utilities accessible from anywhere, they’re actually harder to get at than traditional apps because you can’t activate many of these either from the dock or application switcher. In this situation you have to bounce around until you find an app with few enough menu options that you can actually click on the menu bar app you’re hunting for.

Don’t Run So Many!

The solution here is quite simple right? Don’t run so many menu bar apps! It’s a valid argument, however, I think pointing the finger solely at users fails to look at the whole issue.

For starters, MacBooks are more popular than ever, meaning that a huge chunk of Mac users are using computers with screen sizes as small as eleven to thirteen inches, this doesn’t leave much room for menu bar apps.

To illustrate this fact, let’s take another look at my menu bar. Is it really that overrun with third party utilities? Have I gone menu bar crazy? To get some perspective, I highlighted the apps that aren’t built-in OS X features (there might be a little iStat voodoo happening with my time and date).

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Third party tools are highlighted

Notice that, before adding a single third party app, MacBooks already have a lot going on in the menu bar. In my screenshot there’s Spotlight, the date and time section, battery level indicator, wifi status, sound, iChat bubble, Time Machine and Bluetooth menu. There are also plenty of other default options that I don’t have turned on such as the International menu.

With all the menu bar functionality OS X has to offer right out of the box, MacBook users are left with a large number of utilities to compete for a very small space.

How Can We Fix This Problem?

Users who don’t run a lot of apps will likely think that this is a non-issue: simply don’t run menu bar apps! Easy right? I can see you typing your comments already!

However, for me, this is simply not an option as many of these apps (like Dropbox) are invaluable to my workflow. I’ll wager that plenty of other users will respond similarly about their own apps. Further, if I ask these developers what the solution to this problem is, I doubt that they would say to run fewer menu bar apps since that would cut into their own user base.

Ultimately, I think “Don’t run so many” is a copout answer that sidesteps the problem by shaking a finger at users rather than truly attempting to find a useful solution. So what, if anything can be done?

The Real Issue

As the market for menu bar apps continues to expand, the real heart of this problem lies in the fact that menu bar apps are becoming too difficult to avoid.

The Mac AppStore is chock full of great tools that use this format and there’s no easy way to filter them out. Despite the fact that there are two fundamentally different types of applications in the MAS (dock apps and menu bar apps), Apple has lumped them together.

One reason for this is likely that, while the two categories can be mutually exclusive, the reality is that they often overlap, meaning a single app has both options. And herein lies the solution!

Dear Developers, Give Me Options

Almost by accident, we’ve stumbled onto the simple answer that makes all of this trouble go away. Perhaps menu bar apps that solely occupy a space in the menu bar shouldn’t exist. I know, that’s a radical statement and menu bar app fans will quickly take offense. However, I think the alternative is a better OS X experience that puts more power in the hands of the users.

So what am I suggesting? The perfect model for the ideal app behavior can be found in TextExpander. Open up the TextExpander preferences and this is what you see:

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Choose between a menu bar app, a dock app or both!

It’s a beautiful thing is it not? TextExpander gives me complete freedom over how I want the app to work. I can make it a menu bar only app, a dock only app or choose to have both the menu bar and dock functionality.

To be fair, many apps have indeed adopted this functionality, not just TextExpander. That being said, it’s definitely not a standard behavior and the apps that aren’t playing along are those that eat up your menu bar unnecessarily. They’re awesome utilities that serve a very useful purpose, but they choose to tell users that certain functionality should only be found in the menu bar when ultimately, that’s a decision best left up to each individual.

Conclusion

If you’ve only skimmed up to this point you’re probably wondering what this article is all about. Am I calling for the death of menu bar apps? The answer to that question is simple: absolutely not. I love menu bar apps and find them to be an awesome part of the OS X experience.

However, with such a large portion of the Mac user base experiencing OS X on a small screen, I think it’s time for menu bar app developers to rethink their strategy and consider offering a non-menu bar mode for users who would prefer to have the app running in their dock. This isn’t a rule that Apple should impose on developers but simply something that developers should be courteous and thoughtful enough to offer of their own volition.

Apps like TextExpander set a clear precedence for a better system that allows each individual user to choose how the app will be accessed. It’s a superior, more versatile way to build apps and I think that developers should be eagerly hopping on board.

What do you think? Is this one long pointless rant or is there really a menu bar app problem for users with small screens? Do you agree with my suggestions or do you have a better solution? I want to hear it!