The Zen Of Windows Application Launching, Part 1

Posted March 22nd, 2007 by kyle

Launching and switching between applications are two very common activities when using Windows. Keyboard aficionados will naturally seek to minimize the work involved in such common tasks. For launching applications, Windows provides the Start Menu (accessed from the keyboard via the Windows key or Ctrl+Esc), the Quick Launch toolbar (Win+Tab, Tab), desktop shortcuts (Win+D), and the Run dialog (Win+R). For managing running programs, Windows provides the Taskbar (Win+Tab) and Alt+Tab window. Other than a few innovations in the Start Menu, such as recent and pinned items and highlighting of recently installed programs, little changed in these features between Windows 95 and Windows 2003. They aren’t the most robust implementations:

  • The Start Menu tends to end up as a cluttered, unordered mess that nobody wants to waste their time wading through. The recent/pinned items help, but only in some circumstances.
  • The Alt+Tab window only supports navigating one item at a time via Alt+Tab or Alt+Shift+Tab.
  • Quick Launch and the Taskbar are not really very quick for keyboard fanatics.
  • The Run Dialog isn’t resizable, only remembers the last 30 items entered, and doesn’t show icons.
  • Each feature is isolated, requiring extra thought on the user’s part to decide/remember which keystroke or place to look for each operation.
    Windows Vista did make some improvements in this area, but not enough to get very excited about.

  • The Start Menu provides a search capability, which is a big improvement, but it is fairly limited compared to other implementations (searches only match on contiguously typed characters, so ‘internet’ or ‘explore’ can be used to find Internet Explorer, but not ‘ie’ or ‘iexp’; there is no memory of abbreviations to your choice of a match [for instance, to ensure that 'oe' always matches Outlook Express after you choose it even if something else matched first initially], etc.).
  • Alt+Tab shows thumbnails and can be navigated via arrows keys and Home/End, but it still doesn’t provide a way to group related windows.
  • The flashy, but not very useful, Flip 3D (Win+Tab) has been added (taking away quick keyboard access to the Taskbar).
  • Each feature is still separate, rather than being unified into a more intuitive design.
    These limitations have, of course, spawned a whole cottage industry of products that attempt to improve on various aspects of launching and switching between applications. These days, there are literally dozens of such applications available that take various approaches to solving the problem. I’ve evaluated and used many of them in my ongoing quest for the ultimate in application launching and task switching, and I’ll be reviewing some in future blog posts.

    In my opinion, one of the biggest problems is that there are simply too many ways to launch and switch between programs. These features need to be unified. You shouldn’t have to use Quick Launch or the desktop for common applications but then hunt through the Start Menu for less common programs, or distinguish between launching a program vs. switching to an already-running application, etc. Surprisingly, with all of the programs that are trying to fill this void, nobody has yet managed to combine these capabilities into a single, intuitive interface.

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  • 8 Comments on “The Zen Of Windows Application Launching, Part 1”

    1. Andrea Nagar Says:

      I’m working on that with Direct Access :-)

    2. KevinA. Says:


      I just bought UltraRecall Professional last night. There are a ton of features. Is there a manual that I could print out? If there is, can someone please send me a link at the email address I posted to log in this comment or post the link here? Thanks in advance.

    3. kyle Says:

    4. Menez Says:

      You should definitely try Find and Run Robot (Farr). Nothing beats it (and the developper is great and very active) : can launch anything with a few keyboard strokes, navigate through directories, add plugins, create aliases, etc. It’s a donationware. Try it more than 5 min and report back…

    5. Menez Says:

      i’d like to add that, even though Farr can also be used to switch between tasks with a plugin (using an autohotkey script), I find that for *instant* switching between 2 or three tasks, TaskSwitchXP is a great… Alt-Tab replacement — very flexible, very stable.

    6. kyle Says:

      I’ve already tried FARR and most others like it. I prefer Launchy for launching, but none of them do well with automatically combining activate/launch. I also use TaskSwitchXP for task switching, but it only does switching between running apps. Again, two different functions that should be combined seamlessly.

    7. Kinook Software Blog » Blog Archive » The Zen Of Windows Application Launching, Part 2 Says:

      [...] Several categories of Windows application launchers have evolved over the past several years. In this post, I’ll look at the best and most popular products in each category. I’m only going to mention products that are either quite stable or that have been updated recently. [...]

    8. Kinook Software Blog » Blog Archive » LaunchAssist: Improving Application Launchers Everywhere Says:

      [...] None of the popular launcher applications, nor Windows itself, do a very good job of integrating launching vs. activating an already-running application. LaunchAssist is a little utility I wrote to improve this situation. It works with most application launchers as well as the Windows Start Menu, Run dialog, Explorer, etc. To install, download it here, extract it somewhere onto your hard drive, then register by double-clicking reg.bat (to uninstall, double-click unreg.bat, restart Windows, and delete the DLL). It works on Windows 2000, XP, and 2003, but unfortunately the hook that is needed for it to work was disabled in Vista (and despite what is stated in that thread, it can’t actually be fully enabled on Vista). [...]