October 16, 1999
Perhaps one of the best examples of accomodating user needs is the "Boss Screen", a rather clever and amusing tradition which dates back at least to the beginning of the DOS PC era, although I'm certain earlier examples could be found.
Simply described, a boss screen is an image of a productivity application which can be brought onscreen to replace whatever "unproductive" activity the user is performing. In the days before multitasking operating systems, these were critical features, because programs as large as Flight Simulator couldn't be exited quickly when one's boss was approaching. Usually a simple key comibnation would bring up an image of a standard program such as Lotus 1-2-3.
(For some reason, spreadsheet programs became the definitive example of business productivity, as nearly every boss screen I've ever seen uses a spreadsheet image or simulation to create the illusion that the user is hard at work. Am I the only one who ever plays with spreadsheets?)
The rise of the Mac and Windows made the boss screen less necessary, as users became adept at switching tasks quickly enough to cover their tracks.
But then trouble arrived.
With current versions of Windows and MacOS, task-switching was made more intuitive by on-screen lists of running programs. The downside to this was that copy of Solitaire or that illicit web page would make its presence known through its title being displayed onscreen, even when it wasn't the active program.
And, lunkheaded though they might be, most bosses can figure out that your spreadsheet isn't named "Freecell".
So I noticed two examples of the return of the Boss Screen to computing. The first is Don's Boss Page, a crude but effective page for Windows users that has an image of an Excel spreadsheet filling its first above-the-fold screenful. Not perfect, but certainly useful, especially if the image is already in your cache.
More interesting, and perhaps more unlikely, is this tidbit that, as of the current releases, Microsoft has made all of the games in Windows 2000 display "budget.xls" on the taskbar if you press Esc before minimizing them.
Now I know some anal-retentive IT Managers are going to bitch and moan about the feature, (these are the same ones who remove all the games from Windows before installing it anyway) but to me it shows a glimmer of hope from the people over at Microsoft.
More on this later as I go comb the 'net for examples of old boss screens...