The “double-decker” Windows taskbar

To the untrained eye, Ammunition’s Longhorn PC concepts last week might look nothing more than standard industrial design renders. But if you stared at it long enough as I did, you’d notice the Windows Longhorn screenshot on the monitor shows a taskbar is nothing like anything you’ve seen before. Since there’s no official name for it, I’ve dubbed it the “double-decker” taskbar.

I’ve finally been able to track down the screenshot in its original form.

The “double-decker” Windows taskbar

The story behind this is that during the Longhorn development process, Microsoft designers were toying with the idea of integrating what we know now as the Windows Sidebar into the taskbar itself.

To accommodate this, the taskbar became separated into two-levels where the application switcher was moved to a transparent row by itself on top. This freed up an incredible amount of screen real-estate on the taskbar itself which then could house Sidebar Tiles (as it was known at the time because each ‘gadget’ would dock as a rectangular tile).

The idea behind this was to avoid stealing another edge of the user’s valuable screen real-estate, which unfortunately is a sad reality for Vista Sidebar users today. Instead, it would have resulted in a fraction less vertical space but a more widescreen workspace which is more desirable.

The “double-decker” Windows taskbar

And it made sense to put it in the taskbar because it’s also where a lot of the notifications are already displayed. In fact, you could even replace most status icons in the notifications area with Tiles to provide a richer user experience. For example, instead of an Outlook icon you can have an Outlook tile which displays a list of unread emails. The Messenger icon can also be replaced by a contact list as well as minified versions of chat windows. If this had been realized, the taskbar would have become much more powerful and informative than it ever has been.

Unfortunately as anyone who’s familiar with Fitts’ Law would know that by moving UI objects away from the edges of a screen is essentially removing its infinite width. Fitt’s Law states because the cursor stays at the edge no matter how much further you move it, you can easily acquire these targets by moving the cursor in the general direction. Therefore by moving the application switcher away from the edge would have been drastically increased the effort required to toggle between applications. This was just one of the design problems that ultimately killed the idea.

Concepts like these are interesting because never before has Microsoft publically showed any interest in evolving the taskbar which remains a legacy of the innovation in Windows 95. Of course this now proves a lot more goes on behind the scenes that doesn’t get nearly enough as credit as it deserves.

Raiders of the Lost ArkSometimes I feel like Microsoft maintains a warehouse like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark where it keeps all the abandoned ideas, which is unfortunate because outsiders can never understand what it takes to create the final product. As I’ve been told, thousands of concepts like these were created for Longhorn which resulted in Vista.

At the same time, people who look at these concepts can also be quick to criticize Vista. But the reality is, Vista is easily the highest quality user experience of Windows ever shipped. And that is the direct result of the same designers who put in years of work into Longhorn/Vista. Sure, some ideas had to be sacrificed but they’ve really pushed the boundaries of the Windows user experience and that’s just not for this release, but many releases to come.

46 insightful thoughts

  1. Having the sidebar built into the taskbar? I think that would kill the idea of having custom built gadgets for the sidebar. How much taskbar space do you currently have, and can you spare much for all your sidebar gadgets?

    I’ve been using the Vista Taskbar unlike many others – I have mine on the elft hand side of the screen, so that I can make better use of the wide screen aspect ratio. I also prefer the sidebar gadgets dissembled onto the screen, rather than docked in the sidebar.

    It would be interesting to see what Microsoft would do next, and how they can preserve the current usability of the sidebar.

  2. Something really does need to be done about the “notification area” (a.k.a. system tray), lots of programs abuse it and dump their icons there for no real reason.

    If the taskbar, sidebar and notification area had been unified it’d be way cooler.

    Oh well, at least you can choose to hide inactive icons.

  3. I’m surprised anyone docks gadgets – I use it like Edmund and have them pulled off the board and flick through the few I have with Win+G. However, since displays are going widescreen and the vertical space is pretty much staying the same I think the sidebar works better on the side than at the bottom. For instance, trying to use an video editor or something like flash which benefits far more from vertical space than horizontal – this concept wouldn’t be workable.

  4. very nice screenshots, and unfortunately the sidebar we are current stuck with is probably the worst of all concepts they came up with…

    and i never really put any thought into it being horizontal creating a widescreen effect…another great idea M$ threw out the window, and oddly, a very different start button then what we have “traditionally” seen in older Longhorn builds as well

    some of the older Longhorn videos around the PDC03 timeframe had really nice up close shots of the office tiles and messenger tiles in action with smooth animations and bouncing buttons. to bad it never realy saw the daylight 🙁


  5. Personaly, I’m more fascinated by that explorer window. That looks great! I would have loved to see more explorer windows like that in Vista, but I suppose this music library view would have been too redundant with WMP’s library.

  6. The explorer window looks brilliant and the taskbar looks fantastic. Both look better than waht we got, although I understand the decision behind it. Now how do I go about coding my own Windows Shell to replace Explorer?

  7. Yeah the explorer window looks cool! I especially like having the title clearly visable, unlike Vista where theres not really a title at all!!

  8. I could see it as an option, but as a generalized feature, I don’t think it’s as good as the Sidebar is. I don’t even like double height taskbars, but I’m fine using the Sidebar. Though Vista did ENORMOUSLY prettify the taskbar when its height is increased. In XP, the start button would just stay the same, hugging the top. But the Vista start orb will center itself as a circle. It’s very clean looking and makes visual sense.

  9. I think a sidebar on the side is much better than on the bottom. Like when you’re browsing the internet, having more space vertically is much more useful than less, especially now that widescreen monitors are pretty mainstream. I do wish MS would have a good sidebar team though. 🙁

  10. just as I said in the other post about it .. INCREDIBLE !! I love this functionnality and even if it should be slower to switch applcation there are still many possibilities to switch application .. alt+tab, win+tab .. and they could also have used more shortcut… there is the “flip3D” button ..

    I wish there will have many things like that in Windows ‘7’ because they HAVE the ideas… but they just have to bring them to testers !

  11. there is something to remember – it has to fit to the masses!! we are fascinated by technology and love such concepts, but the mass market has to accept it. thats definately not the case and therefore such concepts stay concepts. simple as that.

    there should be an advanced switch that allows people like us to use such concepts.

  12. Wow, I’ve never seen a still version of this concept before. I agree with comments regarding the practicalities of switching tasks, but still, it'[s beautiful to look at.

    Do you have this image at full resolution if it’s not too much of a bother? I’d really like to see the detail of all the visual elements.

  13. Hmm, it’s easy to understand now, why Vista’s development took so long: even experimental concepts that ignore the fundamental rules of interface design are very well done with every detail.

    With more and more widescreen displays out there it was clever to put the Sidebar on the side. And how should a full screen mode work in this Longhorn concept?

    I really like the task-oriented concept of Windows 95, it’s still the best and most consistant one out there (even compared with the app-oriented and paper-simulating one on the Mac). So let’s hope they will improve but not change it in the next version of Windows. As for Vista’s Sidebar the biggest problem isn’t the position on the screen but the lack of usefull gadgets like in this concept. Maybe they should integrate the notification area into the Sidebar with a big button in the right corner of the taskbar to easily turn the Sidebar on or off (like a dockable start menu on the right side).

    BTW: The black rounded corners on top of the screen are funny! Didn’t Leopard killed them now on the Mac? 🙂

  14. Oh yeah, FYI
    The early longhorn builds could do this with the sidebar.
    And about the useability thing with FITS law… there actually was the option to merge the sidebar into the taskbar or to separate them.
    So to me, the wasn’t any useability problems since you could choose its location and behaviour. It was simply because back then the shell was using Avalon (WPF) and since all that went downhill and ran like a dawg performance wise, they scrapped it and didn’t have time to recreate it because of the reset.

    And the same goes for explorer. Look at the video and its animations. Totally stunning, again there was nothing wrong with its design, (expect I personally would of added the top right search bar). Since that was all powered by Avalon, we lost all its coolness with Vista since Vista doesn’t use Avalon. That’s why the explorer prototypes back then had views such as Phodeo, carousel etc. Don’t forget to, that a lot of Explorer back then with all its power was hooked into WinFS and would have used Virtual Stores to do its library’s. Unlike Vista with its cheap Search Folders. Hence why they dropped the ALL Music, ALL Documents virtual folders in Vista. Because it just doesn’t work well….

    Personally I don’t think Microsoft will release an OS that as powerful as what Longhorn would of been for another 3 or so releases.

  15. What a pity that microsoft decided to drop out all these WPF based explorer concepts we saw a few years ago in the time of longhorn alpha…

    last year I wanted to make a more “beautiful” file explorer using WPF (take a look at , , or try if you want to see it), but I quickly abandoned this idea when I understood that WPF is a resource hog (especially when using 3d) and there’s not much things that can be done to prevent the entire system to slow down 🙁
    that’s probably why Microsoft decided not to include a wpf based shell into vista, and it’s better like that! nobody wants explorer.exe to use 75% of system resources…

  16. i just hope that MS is secretly working on finishing the original Longhorn code for release as Windows 7.
    that stuff is just teh shiz, and i’d love to have Phodeo back, among other things.
    i would also like the old sidebar back, complete with notification history and all that good stuff. i am so sorry MS took the pages down, but i printed some of them and would gladly scan and upload in case no one here knows what the hell i’m swooning over.

  17. That UI is indeed luscious. And who would have known what potential a double start bar may have provided they integrated it nicely with the OS.

    That red information bar is very hot. And it looks like MS applied that reflection look way before Apple made that a standard to their design practices.

  18. So in no way am I a Windows person. I love Macs to death and can hardly stand Microsoft as a company, but I continue to read this blog to keep my eyes open to both sides of the equation. However, I feel that this setup would’ve been much better than how Vista turned out. I personally find the new Vista look tacky, and this one seems to have a professional and aesthetic feel to it. I really wish Microsoft would’ve stuck to this. It would’ve definitely made me have better feelings for Windows.

  19. Unlock your taskbar, pull it up about three notches (kinda the same height as the sidebar in that concept image) and then lock it again.

    Now try and go about your daily computing tasks… surfing, word processing etc.

    Dunno about you… but, at this height, the taskbar got really distracting for me. The concept looks good, but maybe in reality a taskbar-sidebar thing that’s that tall at the bottom just got in the way.

  20. Every time I see a video of Longhorn I want to cry. It looks so much cooler than Vista is.

    It makes me wonder though… Vista is capable of all those things: WPF supposedly makes it easy to create really cool looking stuff, but where is it all? Why aren’t there any cool WPF apps? I guess Yahoo messenger is almost there.

  21. i personally think that this scenario would’ve been more effective if the taskbar was on the bottom and the sidebar was on the top. the taskbar could stay always-on-top and the sidebar would have a regular z-order. this would’ve solved the Fitts’ Law issue.

  22. I don’t like that interface all too much but what i find interesting is the whole album collection thing they have going on… i always wondered where that went since seeing it off some Longhorn concept. In place of a unique and interesting approach to using your computer we’ve got a shinier version of XP…

  23. Wow! Some of the longhorn PDC concepts were truly amazing. Microsoft should make a transformation pack or something similar and release it under Windows Vista Ultimate Extras 🙂

  24. Someone may have already pointed this out in the comments, but I saw the headline and just had to stop by and point out that the task bar has had that feature at least as far back as Windows 2000 if not even before. Just drag the edge of the bar as far as you like. Unlock it first if you need to.

  25. this is not about a large taskbar, this is about the uber-advanced integration of the sidebar and the taskbar. just look at the screenshots above and you’ll surely realise what all the fuss is over.

    there is honestly nothing out there like this, but i wouldn’t doubt it if there’s a linux programmer out there willing to make it happen.

  26. SmartBar XP can do ALL the things you want, it is a copy of the Longhorn Sidebar. It’s a Taskbar-Sidebar combination with integrated Notification Area bullshit, MSN (Live) Messanger, Outlook, Media Player/Winamp, Clock, Calendar, Search Engine, ability to hide the windows taskbar, SKINS, and pretty much everything you guys want… and yes: IT WORKS ON VISTA AND CAN BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE USELESS VISTA SIDEBAR!!!

  27. Even if SmartBarXP (I used it in 2003 or later when we thought Longhorn was a sure thing) can make this happen, it’s not the same. It may look the same, but it isn´t.

    It’s like saying that by throwing a couple of glass elements in Ubuntu, you could make a Vista. This is ridiculous.

    We want the real thing, not some gimmick.

  28. i love the idea of a double decked task bar (its stuffed yet it look so clean) but more and more LCD screens are becoming widescreen and this would better suit a widesrceen format if it were vertical (as if it were like the windows sidebar) because i mainly use a PC to view the web and web pages are primarily designed to be scrolled up and down.

    the things i love about the “double decker taskbar” is that the large area is black with gradient stripes, if i were to see this on a screen, the large part wouldn’t look like its part of the desktop, but the application switcher should be against the side(or bottom) or be sticky to the cursor so it would be easier to quickly select the window icon.

    when i see this screenshot i feel as if Vista isn’t a complete OS, i hope windows 7 is like or better than this

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  30. The idea of a sidebar was great sadly it slows down the computer on Widows Vista, but on Windows 7 there is a gadget called “SideBar” and that works and looks exactly like the sidebar on Widows Vista (Ofcourse you have to have Win7 gadgets on the computer), but it has one meager advantage “It works a lot faster then on Windows Vista”. Then there is no need to have it “top activated” you can hide it in the background and wen moving the mouse on the left side it appears (left or right you chose were to put it). In doing so you do not take valuable screen space. The screen space is important for me because I have a 14,1 screen size. I also use Aston2 witch gives me the plausibility to put a bar wherever I like and how many I like. Aston2 has gadgets and the plausibility of putting your own buttons with shortcuts. I also use a bar called AltDesk that gives the plausibility of working in up to 16 desk screens at the same time like having 16 computers. I only use 2 to 8 desk screens depending on the design I chose, you never need 16 desk screens it is to many. For special buttons I use WinStep the functions may exist in Aston2 themes but I do not use the Aston2 themes do to a bug it has. With Aston2 you can also redesign the StartMenu witch I have done (There are a lots of skins to use). It may slow down a computer a bit at start, but after it starts it is not slow at all, in fact the speed in working mode is the same as without all my design. My computer is not that powerful it is just a 1,75 duo processor so you do not need a fast computer to have all what I have, but you have to think of the CONFIGURATION so you do not slow down your computer and have free screen space. All of my SideBars are hidden i the background and only pops up wen I go with m mouse on the side of the screen. For those that have facebook they can see screenshots of my desktop here on my facebook page

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