The Mac Switching Report: The Application Quitting Dilemma

March 15th, 2007

Most of you know that applications run a little differently when you compare the Mac and Windows platforms. That and other differences are apt to cause some measure of confusion as folks switch to our favorite computing platform.

Such minor issues as the Command versus the Control key for common shortcuts are easily mastered, and if you must float back and forth between the two platforms, you eventually become accustomed to the lay of the land. Of course the best idea comes in the latest version of Parallels Desktop, where you can use a standard preference setting and actually use the Mac keyboard shortcuts under Windows too.


But one thing that doesn’t change is the way menus and the process of quitting applications work. As you know, the Mac OS has a single, unified menu bar at the top of the screen. Under Windows, there’s a separate menu bar in every application window. More confusing, however, is the fact that Windows Vista drops the menu bar labels in favor of icons unless you opt to go to a classic-style menu motif. Leave it to Microsoft to take a tried-and-tested user interface tradition and turn it on its ear for no good reason.

Of course, Apple can pull a few tricks of its own in keeping with its “Think Different” philosophy, but that’s beyond the scope of this article, so hold the comments please.

The other factor is more confusing, and I’m not altogether sure that the Mac way is necessarily better than the Windows version.

As you all know, with a few notable exceptions, to exit or quit a Mac application, you choose Quit from the Application menu or use the Command-Q shortcut. It’s consistent for applications that can spawn multiple windows. However, applications that use a single window, such as System Preferences, may simply quit when you close that window.

The latter is, of course, how it works under Windows with all applications. Close the last window and the application is no longer running. So you can expect that, when Windows users switch to the Mac, they anticipate the same behavior and may leave applications open by mistake, because they closed all its open windows and expected it shut down the application.

Yes, there is a global Exit command in a Windows application, but it’s one that is probably seldom used, since the alternative works well enough.

Such differences ought to be fairly easy to deal with, but there is one more factor that comes into play far more than you might expect, and I bet it’s happened to you. Even though all open applications (other than background processes that generally apply to system add-ons or such things as virus preventive software) are clearly indicated by a tiny arrow in the Dock, that’s easy to overlook.

So, yes, you leave an application open without any document windows. In most cases, this doesn’t mean an awful lot. An properly coded application running in the background, with no documents open and doing nothing at all, shouldn’t hog memory. But that doesn’t mean it won’t.

Having used both platforms for years, I’m accustomed to the variations. It doesn’t bother me a bit, although I can see where novices might find Mac application behavior confusing. The real question is whether the Windows method is better.

Now it’s quite easy to assume that any Windows concept must necessarily be bad because Microsoft developed it or borrowed it. And I’ll leave it to others to decide which is correct, and it really doesn’t matter all that much in the scheme of things.

So what do you readers think? If you’ve used Windows, would you prefer that closing all document windows shut the application off, or do you find that to be just an impediment to good productivity? In the end, the best method is the one least confusing and the most productive.

As far as I’m concerned, I prefer the Mac way. But I don’t mind being proven wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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14 Responses to “The Mac Switching Report: The Application Quitting Dilemma”

  1. Enrique Mayoral says:

    When quiting an application in the Mac platform, it is the equivalent of a “ctrl-alt-delte” function in windows. Fundamentaly, they are the same thing. “X’ing” out of a windoe in Windows is the same as it is on the Mac. Quiting an Application on a Mac releases the memory to The OS for other Applications to use it later on. The only way you can do that truly in windows is to use the previous keystroke mentioned before. SO I guess what I tried to prove, and I hope I did a good enough job of it, is that the Mac way is designed easier and in my opinion, better. I hope this was some good enough info to demonstrate my point. Thanks for the article. I love ’em!

  2. NIels Kobschätzki says:

    But if you don’t quit it, you have to cmd+tab through the still open apps.
    But in Germany a Windows/Linux-switcher will fast learn that cmd+q quits applications. In Win and Linux is the @-symbol reachable through alt gr+q which is exact the same hand movement as cmd+q
    That’s far worse and inconvenient than not closing applications.
    Something else I see is if I look at switchers that they minimize windows instead of hiding them which is in my experience the “more normal” and “better” way in Mac OS X to get rid of unwanted applications of which the windows should stay open

  3. Sponge says:

    I really think it comes down to personal preference, and usually has to do with what you’re used to. It’s not at all clear that one is superior to the other, unlike many other differences between the Mac and Windows. My wife had always used Windows before we got together, and while she had no real problems adapting to the Mac the one thing she still does is kill the windows without quitting the app. Since most apps play nice with their processor usage when not actively being used, I often don’t notice until I go to the dock for something. I definitely prefer the Mac way, but again, it’s what I’m used to.

  4. Jim Clark says:

    A colleague and I were discussing this very issue not long ago when he commented that one thing that bothered him about Macs was that closing the last window did not quit the application. I thought about it and believe that NOT quitting the application is more consistent. If the original designers of the Mac were attempting to duplicate an office environment, think of a word processor as a legal pad. You may have no documents you are working on, but you might have several at the same time. Tearing off the last document does not put away your tablet, indeed it is there for further use. Closing the last window (tearing off the last document) should still allow you to start a new document without putting away and getting out your tablet.

  5. Jon says:

    It makes no sense to have to keep one document open in order to create a new one, before being able to close the previous one…. just to keep an application running and not relaunching it constantly.

    I use ID, PS, Quark, etc., etc. daily, and if I had to use them under Windows, this “feature” alone would probably drive me bananas.

    And…frankly, I’m a little surprised this isn’t a “feature” of Mac versions of MS apps.

  6. It makes no sense to have to keep one document open in order to create a new one, before being able to close the previous one…. just to keep an application running and not relaunching it constantly.

    I use ID, PS, Quark, etc., etc. daily, and if I had to use them under Windows, this “feature” alone would probably drive me bananas.

    And…frankly, I’m a little surprised this isn’t a “feature” of Mac versions of MS apps.

    You make some great points there. As to that “feature,” Well Microsoft knows that they have to make their Mac applications “Mac-like” to some extent or they won’t hear the end of it 🙂


  7. Eddie Hargreaves says:

    Windows users SAY that when you close the last window of any application it quits the application, but that is not true for Microsoft Word nor Adobe Photoshop in Windows. Those applications remain open even if you close every open document. I agree that it certainly causes confusion for switchers, but IMO Windows is more inconsistent than OS X in this regard.

  8. Andrew says:

    You CAN keep an application open in Windows while closing all of its documents, very easily. Just close (cntrl-W) the document instead of closing the window (application). I do it all the time when I want to continue working in an application, though the application I do it in the most (Word) launches so quickly on a fast PC (about a second) that it really doesn’t matter if the application is running or not when its time to create a new document.

  9. Ron Evry says:

    Well, this may be related, but an odd thing I have noticed over the years is that if you double-click an application icon in Windows more than one time, TWO versions of the application will open. This can be plenty aggravating if you think that maybe the reason an application hasn’t opened isn’t that the machine is slow, but that you’ve “missed” the icon and do it again.

    If you double-click an app icon on a Mac that is already open, it just brings the already-opened app to the foreground. Windows switchers often get confused by that, because they aren’t looking for the program name on the top menu. They don’t realize that somebody may have previously closed the windows and left the program open.

    In Windows, it drives me nuts to close an application and then see ANOTHER of the same app staring me in the face.

    It seems that windows users are simply “used” to this concept and need to grasp the way things Ought To Be. 🙂

  10. Peter says:

    Actually, I’ll admit to being “weird.” I’m a long time Mac user and developer, but I prefer the Windows method.

    Windows document handling has a pretty entertaining history. The way Windows works is that an application is essentially loaded as a DLL. Document-based applications know how to deal with a document. If the user opens a second document, the operating system basically loads a second copy of the application. Because the code is shared, though, it doesn’t reload the code–just the application data.

    (By the way, for those of you who believe Microsoft = Bad, Apple = Good, I’d point out the NeXTSTEP worked the same way.)

    This was different from the Mac, where applications that support multiple documents must do that work themselves. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that the Mac started life with 128K of memory. When an application launched, it owned the computer. There was no switching between applications.

    From a Mac user’s standpoint, in early versions of Windows, this was a bit confusing. Mostly because Microsoft didn’t have a very good “file browser”–you essentially had two seperate applications for launching applications and finding documents. I remember playing with it as a Mac user and it took forever for me to figure out how it worked. A “unified” browser didn’t really show up until Windows 95.

    Where the world got entertaining is Microsoft Excel. As we all know, Excel started life on the Mac and was ported to Windows. But Microsoft kept the “Mac way” of dealing with documents and created a new standard for handling documents–MDI (Multiple Document Interface). In this case, you would have an “application window” which would contain your menu bar and you would have multiple documents within the “application window”–just like the Mac! Of course, applications would now be responsible for managing their own documents rather than letting the operating system do it for them.

    So you had some applications that worked the old way and some applications that worked with MDI. Apps that came over from the Mac tended to use MDI. Long-time Windows apps used the old way. Some tried to do odd things to bridge the gap. It all got very confusing for awhile. I’ve not had to use Windows in years, thank heavens, so I’m not sure if it has all managed to sort itself out.

    Personally, from a technology point-of-view, I think the Windows method is better. However, I think Apple’s method is far more usable.

  11. mark says:

    Excel still works the “Mac” way. Which is very confusing because it differs from the rest of the Windows apps I use. And I usually quit by clicking the X. Except in Excel, I have to remember to click the little x below the menus and ribbons, and not the big X. Because the big X will cause all my Excel files to close or put up a dialog asking to be saved. It’s a pain.

  12. Excel still works the “Mac” way. Which is very confusing because it differs from the rest of the Windows apps I use. And I usually quit by clicking the X. Except in Excel, I have to remember to click the little x below the menus and ribbons, and not the big X. Because the big X will cause all my Excel files to close or put up a dialog asking to be saved. It’s a pain.

    Ah yes, leave it to Microsoft to pull this sort of thing 🙂


  13. Nick says:

    There’s no real distinction between the application and the window on Windows:

    “MS Windows and associated ‘desktops’ such as GNOME and KDE do not have the target-action paradigm. Their programming languages do not afford such possibilities, and their application architecture won’t let it happen either.

    Applications are not object-oriented. Document windows are ‘singletons’. Dropping a file on a document window prompts the system to ask you if you want to save the current document before opening the new one. There is no facility for opening further document windows – it’s one or the other but never both.

    Because application and window are one and the same, menus are not independent of their document windows but bolted to them. When dialogs pop up they lock out messages to the main window, including access to the menu.”,03.shtml

    It seems pretty messy to me.

    Besides, since the menus are not “bolted to the window” on OS X, they are always in a predictable reliable location up at the top of the screen whatever the size of the window. It also means that on OS X overshooting a menu item with the mouse is not possible. One Slashdotter suggested that Windows users tend to work with windows full-screen out of a not-fully-conscious wish to put the menu in a predictable place. It may well be.

    I don’t particularly like full-screen windows. I prefer the way that on OS X you can work with windows that fit the contents and no more–which is how the zoom button works in most apps–thereby facilitating multi-tasking and drag-and-dropping between windows (with Expose to help out where necessary).

    I notice that Windows users often complain about having to re-size windows only from the bottom right-hand corner on the Mac. Actually, I find that preferable. Constant manual re-sizing of windows is unnecessary on the Mac, because most windows will zoom between a predefined size and “fit to contents”. But I often find when I use a Linux desktop or Windows that when I go to drag a window it “stretches” instead–because you can resize from anywhere on the window border and I’ve got the mouse too close to the edge of the window border and inadvertently re-sized” it instead. I find that very annoying.

    As a whole, I think the way the OS X desktop works has been far better thought through, and it makes everything else look a bit primitive. But it’s not surprising that people bringing settled habits and expectations with them from other environments don’t get it right off.

  14. kilroytrout says:

    Several of the comments here about Windows application behaviour are not true of all applications nor is there a paradigm enforced by the system API. For example some applications allow only one copy to be launched while some don’t, some spawn new documents with drag and drop and many don’t. MDI style apps used to be common, but are out of favor these days. MS is toying with new icon “ribbon” UIs in the new version of Office, but there is nothing standard about them. If desired a developer could position a floating menu bar across the top of the screen, anchor it vertically to a window, or have no menu bar at all.

    Windows app interfaces are really a product of de facto programming practices. MS leads the way, sort of, and historically without much standardization. The Windows API is really very open ended (speaking as a long time PC & Mac developer), and you can basically model any sort of behaviour and GUI elements you want. This is not true of OS X where, in particular, the top menu bar *is* where your menu must reside. The Mac programming community has also evolved to be more standards adherent which is a good thing.

    In the end I prefer applications to each have their own menu bar, but that’s just me:-)

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