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TopDesk Concluded

My TopDesk trial ran out today. I have seriously tried using it for a month and decided the following…

Fundamentally for the programs I use it is deeply flawed. I use applications that have Show Modal windows and TopDesk focuses on the main application window instead of the currently focused modal window which jams the program. Admittedly I can work around this but I shouldn’t have too!

Telling me that these applications are “broken” is absolutely, positively, f**king stupid. (I was more polite in my comments, but I’ve spoken to other people about this and they couldn’t believe the reply I got). The way I see it, TopDesk is an Alt+Tab replacement. The first thing I would have done is to make sure it completely emulated Alt+Tab’s functionality. It doesn’t.

Then there is the memory issue that has been beaten to death. It is possible to tweak its usage down but I’m still dubious as to why its so high. I was amused to read this post on Otaku Software blog that people who found TopDesk via digg commented on the same issue. Doesn’t that give an inkling that its a very common problem that should be looked at? 

As a random half-arsed example, if a computer game like World of Warcraft can be made to run with 256Mb (minimum spec) then why does TopDesk need, at worst, half the memory WoW does? On a scale of complexity I’d say that TopDesk isn’t anywhere near WoW. That to me is why people have a problem with it. You think to yourself, what is this program doing? You can justify Outlook using 80Mb but a task switcher?

However the final straw was the hash it made of Delphi. Delphi (pre-version eight) is made up of separate floating windows and TopDesk lists them all when it doesn’t need to. Alt+Tab doesn’t do this and neither does the test application I wrote. I use Delphi all day and this made navigating really hard work.

Ignoring the functionality issues Alt+Tab is still vastly quicker. I’ve really, really tried to use TopDesk. I tweaked all sorts of options. I turned all the animations off but found the switching too abrupt. So I put them back on but on their fastest setting. I tried the different modes. Spatial seemed the most useful, but I never got any consistency in where windows would appear so would have to really look at what I wanted to focus on, which defeats the point of using it. How is that quicker? It got to the point where I’d stopped using Alt+Tab altogether and I was switching applications via the TaskBar!

For me it just isn’t usable and I won’t be buying a copy. All I can say is try it yourself, see what you think (there’s a 30 day trial available). I’m just happy to have the old Alt+Tab back.

For more info on the various problems see the comments on these previous posts.

Oh and for people searching the site for “TopDesk license”, if you find it useful, please go and buy it, its only $9.95!

James Stewart said,

March 8, 2006 @ 6:03 am

There’s some pretty harsh things said in your post, so I’m going to be a little less polite than usual. I’m also disappointed that it’s come to this: at any point in the past month you could have aired these opinions to me via email, my blog, and the TopDesk forums, or even the comments on your own blog before it got to this point. It probably wasn’t obvious to you, but after my last post I was pretty much willing to make some time to deal with ShowModal issue for you. If you’d mentioned the Delphi problem, I’d have also had a look at that. I know you’ve just started blogging, but the whole point of it is communication, a chance for people to talk and come to an understanding, and hopefully both benefit from the experience. Using a blog solely as a pulpit to air your criticisms is counter-productive.

In my opinion, you’ve overreacted to my comments: you’re a developer, you should know that it’s *impossible* for all applications to be compatible. There are millions of applications out there, so complete “Alt+Tab” compatibility is just a dream. Yes, your sample code works, but I can think of 10 apps off the top of my head that it won’t work with. I’m not saying your code is broken, but you must realize that that’s not all there is to enumerating *application* windows. I’m not saying the code in TopDesk is perfect either, just that TopDesk is set up to handle things in a different way that’s compatible with a different set of applications. All I’m doing is pointing out the cause of the problem, and stating that as a small company we can’t provide workarounds for every single application out there. That’s not me brushing you off; it’s just the cold, hard reality all developers must live with. I had a hard time trying to understand why you were so vehement in your response – I never tried to pass the buck, I explain the cause and why we didn’t have a workaround, and at the end of the process I even offered to add in a workaround for specifically for you. If it really was a bug in TopDesk, why would I even be arguing about it when I could just go and fix it? I’d honestly expect a little bit more understanding from a fellow developer. You’ve said my response was “absolutely, positively, f**king stupid”, so I’m throwing down the gauntlet: knowing that the problem wasn’t a bug in TopDesk, put yourself in my place and tell me what your response would have been.

Regarding the memory, TopDesk stores window images as DirectX textures. This is the only way it can display the window animation using 3D acceleration. Given this knowledge, answering the memory usage question is just case of applying simple mathematics: a maximized window at 1024×768 in 32 bit takes 1024x768x4 bytes = 3 MB. Multiply this by the number of windows you usually have open, go up in resolution, and you have your answer. Setting TopDesk to “use less memory” enables compressed DirectX textures, which will drop the memory requirements by around half, but that still means you’re looking at 1.5MB for a 1024×768 window. It’s not a bug, and it’s not a “common problem”, it’s just the resource requirements of the application. C’mon, you’re a *developer*. You can rant all you want about the memory usage, that’s your prerogative, but misrepresenting the memory usage as a bug or “problem” when it’s pretty obvious why it is the way it is just isn’t on.

Here’s what it all boils down to: if TopDesk doesn’t work with your favourite apps, then I’d recommend you don’t buy it. If you find the memory requirements too much, my advice is to not buy it. If you don’t like spatial mode or the other modes, and find Alt+Tab or the taskbar quicker, it’s not for you. Unless you absolutely love it, please don’t buy it. Fortunately for us, enough people do buy it, but we’re not out to screw anyone over.

You’re attacking TopDesk as if it was a major application and the issues you brought up were keeping food off your table. It’s not; it’s just a task switcher. It uses a lot of memory to display cool effects that a lot of people want on Windows, and it’s incompatible with some applications. There’s a trial, so you can try it out with your favourite apps before deciding whether you want to buy it, and you don’t have to buy it if you don’t like it. That’s all it is, nothing more. It’s not a rootkit, and it it’s not a virus that will delete your hard drive, so why direct such anger towards it? If you don’t like something then you should feel free to criticize it, but please remember what it is you’re criticizing, and try and keep things in perspective. It seems a little bit silly to have all this fuss over what’s essentially a $10 application :).

Otaku Software Weblog said,

March 8, 2006 @ 7:34 am

How Not To Use A Blog…

Paul posted about TopDesk a couple of times, pointing out an incompatibility with one of his favourite applications. The conversation was a bit strained at times as we each tried to get our individual points across, but at least it was a conversation….

Me said,

March 8, 2006 @ 12:11 pm

I can keep this short and sweet. TopDesk works great for me and Paul I think you are ‘absolutely, positively, f**king stupid’. Haven’t you get anything better to do? Get a life… idiot!

Paul said,

March 8, 2006 @ 3:09 pm

My response would have been to say we’ll take those applications into consideration for testing at a later date. To say they’re broken isn’t really the right way to approach it. That really narked me. With TopDesk it seems that compatibility with other applications is a key issue, therefore I would be keeping a list of problem programs and schedule in the time to look at them and hopefully add support.

I’ve been in situations where an application I’ve worked on has stopped working with Microsoft Office because of a service pack that changed its COM interface. Therefore a fix has to be put in place to call the correct interface depending on version number. As another example I’ve had the printer drivers for a particular printer that just wouldn’t print properly even though every other printer works fine and follows the standard rules for how it should work. So again a fix was needed for that. I wouldn’t say I was happy about doing it because it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, but it had to be done. I would liken this to TopDesk.

Raymond Chen blogs about the fact that Windows has lots of tweaks and fixes built in to make sure various pieces of software work. You’ve said as much as in regards to Word. Its an unfortunate fact of software development. In order to keep the customer happy it has to be done. The easiest cause of action is to implement a work around within your (by your I don’t just mean TopDesk, I mean in general) own software. Look at all the code that appears in web pages to work with different web browsers!

I would say I passionately tried to help, I don’t think I was vehemently trying to push the point. From my ivory tower I’m seeing it as a lesser problem that is obviously is. You’re in the thick of it, you’ve written the program and know the pitfalls and issues. Fair enough, I should have thought before engaging keyboard.

As for my post not being the way to blog, well that’s debatable. I’m more than entitled to my opinion, even if in this case it’s over the top and ranty. It was intentional venting. I’m passionate about software, I feel that software should work properly and that I should get that across. Whether it costs $10 or $10,000 :). I get annoyed when software works in an odd way and think how did that come about? On the other side of that, I’m also always trying to improve how I go about creating software.

Getting back to blogs, the best blogs I’ve read try to invoke thought and response. They give a persons opinion such as Coding Horror, Scoble, David Winer, Steve Rubel (I’ll admit not like the ranty why I’ve written, but I’m stretching my limits to see what is and isn’t acceptable). There are also blogs that discuss topics in interesting ways such as Joel on Software, Creating Passionate Users, Jensen Harris: An Office User Interface Blog or Signal vs. Noise. A blog is something that should be updated regularly with something the person writing it is interested in, they should voice their opinions, otherwise its not a blog. I’ve seen far to many where they’re just not used for their intended purpose.

So, yes a more forward and open discussion would have benefited both parties. But given our initial discussion telling me the programs I use are broken and that they should “get with the program” and that my other suggestions didn’t seem to go down well, I didn’t feel much like mentioning Delphi. I suppose I didn’t pick up on the hint for help, I don’t really do subtle :).

If you want to pursue the issues I brought up then I’d be more than willing to help, but I must point out I don’t have a use for TopDesk. I’m set in my ways!

Paul said,

March 8, 2006 @ 3:14 pm

“Me”, the anonymous AOL user, I’m glad you like TopDesk. Hugs and kisses to you and your family. Thanks for commenting!

James Stewart said,

March 8, 2006 @ 5:39 pm

Me: Thanks for the kind words about TopDesk, but I think it’s not constructive to call people names, especially when the guy has tried to help in the past :). I don’t want to knock you or have a go at you either, as I realize you were only defending TopDesk, but I think anonymous comments should be respectful. If you’re not going to say something nice about someone, you should be willing be identified with that comment :).

Paul: I can see that my fault was trying to explain where the problem came from any why we couldn’t fix it at this point in time. I should have just said “yeah, we’ll look into it”, but I’d rather users were fully informed of the situation. I guess being frank isn’t always the best way to approach a conversation :).

I never said that *you* should get with the program, I said that smaller applications should, and if you look at the end of that conversation, I ended up offering to workaround the problem for you. Again, as I pointed out, we’re *not* Microsoft (or even Raymond Chen on his own), and we can’t workaround every single application incompatibility straight away. This doesn’t mean we don’t want to, it just means that we’re constrained by time and resources. Workarounds are implemented in every version of TopDesk, but only when the main features and bug fixes have been completed. After all, if the problem doesn’t lie with TopDesk, and 90% of our users don’t use the application, you can’t really blame us for giving it a lower priority.

There’s a TopDesk application compatibility list (http://www.otakusoftware.com/topdesk/faq/application_compatibility.html), but there’s no schedule, as the main focus is on providing the majority with bug fixes/features. The list isn’t completely up to date, but it is updated every few weeks. As I said before, the schedule of compatibility workarounds is based solely on demand. For a small company, this is definitely the right way to go about things, as we have no idea what incompatibility problems are present (and the priority with which they should be worked-around) without user input. And again, I’d like to point out that if the problem is with TopDesk itself, it’d be fixed by now.

You’ve said you don’t like TopDesk, and that’s not a problem at all. I’m really happy that you took the time at the start to engage me, and I’m OK with the “ranty” part of last the post (I’ve heard a lot worse on lesser “public forums”) as long as you can appreciate my reasoning behind the memory usage and our approach to dealing with incompatibilities in other applications. As I said in my blog post, my main issue is that you didn’t bring any of these issues up with me beforehand. You have all my contact details, so is it really so hard to email me or post a comment on my blog before you post? I’m out here responding to blog posts because I want to engage users, since that’s the only way we can make our products better, and the tools we’ve been given (email, blogs, forums) are something that the previous generation didn’t have, so why not take advantage of them? Also, remember that a lot gets lost in the written word. Things can be taken the wrong way, or come across in a way that the author did not intend. The only way we can overcome this is by more communication.

I’d love to address the issues you’re seeing with both ShowModal and Delphi. Whether or not you have a use for TopDesk doesn’t come into it. At some point some users of these applications will want to use TopDesk, and I’d like to be able to provide some kind of assistance to them. Feel free to either email me, comment on one of my blog posts, or post a topic in the Otaku Software forums.

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