For many people--particularly those who've come to the Mac after first using an iOS device--there was and always has been Mac OS X. Before that... darkness. In truth, Apple has left a long trail of OS revisions in its wake--from System 1.x to Mac OS 9.x. (Apple changed its OS naming scheme from System This to Mac OS That when it moved from System 7.5 to Mac OS 7.6.) In these earlier days of the Mac's operating system you couldn't fling a brick in any compass direction without hitting some utility that attempted to make that operating system better (or more attractive or, in far too many cases, goofier).
For those who weren't there, the pre-OS X Mac OS was quite a different beast. Oh sure, you still double-clicked this and dragged that, but things we take for granted just didn't exist in those days. What, you want your Mac to operate for an entire day without crashing? Dreamer. You say you'd like to share a printer with the other computers in your home? Take a class. Broadband? Is 2400 baud broad enough for you, buddy? In short, powerful and cool though my Power Mac 6100 and, later, Power Computing Power Tower 180e, seemed at the time, the Mac OS was still on the clumsy side.
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Third-party developers made some interesting efforts to deal with that clumsiness. Under Mac OS 9 and earlier, those developers had greater opportunities to muck with the Finder and low-level functions on the Mac. You could slap themes on your Mac sixteen ways to Sunday, use ResEdit to place the ugliest fonts imaginable in the menu bar, and, oh, those flying toasters. One of the areas that developers found particularly interesting was application launching. In those dockless days, launching an application was pretty tedious: Dig down into one folder or another, double-click the item you sought, and you were on your way.
Like many people I used Now Utilities and its Now Menus component, which placed hierarchical menus within the Apple menu. (Yes, this was a really big deal at the time). And while that was a better solution than rooting around in one folder or another seeking a favorite application, it still required a fair bit of mousing around and dealing with menus that could be quite clumsy.
What's Up, Dock?
It was around this time that dock utilities became popular. Aladdin Software (makers of StuffIt) had one as did (I believe) Now. And there were plenty more. Similar to the dock you find in today's Mac OS X, these tools allowed you to place your favorite applications in an always-present window and launch them with a single click. (With OS 9, Apple instituted its own single-button launching utility aptly called Launcher.) I tried every dock utility I could lay my hands on. I believe it was our own Jason Snell (he was about 8 years old at the time) who one day suggested, "If you'd like a dock launcher, you should take a look at DragThing."
In those days, it was available as shareware and could be downloaded from James Thomson's site, so I gave it a go. I liked what I saw, and for a variety of reasons. First, it was quite flexible. Beyond being a way to launch applications with a single click, the docks you created could be used to access or launch a variety of items--folders, devices on a local network, servers, URLs, and so on. And you could create multiple docks. In my case, I created one dock for my currently running applications and another for applications I used routinely. The Macs I use today employ that same configuration.
And developer James Thomson kept up with it. Unlike with lot of these utilities, Thomson didn't sell it to a large company or give up on it. Instead he supported and added more features to the utility. Among those features was the ability to launch items via keyboard shortcuts, store and retrieve text clippings, save docks as drawers that pop-out when you move your cursor to the edge of the screen, and allow you to preview certain kinds of files from within a hierarchical menu.