Multiple document interface

Multiple document interface

Graphical computer applications with a multiple document interface (MDI) are those whose windows reside under a single parent window (usually except for modal windows), as opposed to all windows being separate from each other (single document interface). Such systems often allow child windows to embed other windows inside them as well, creating complex nested hierarchies. In the usability community, there has been much debate about which interface type is preferable. Generally, SDI is seen as more useful in cases where users work with more than one application. Software companies have used both interfaces with mixed responses. For example, Microsoft changed its Office applications from SDI to MDI mode and then back to SDI, although the degree of implementation varies from one component to another.

The disadvantage of MDI usually cited is the lack of information about the currently opened windows: In order to view a list of windows open in MDI applications, the user typically has to select a specific menu ("window list" or something similar), if this option is available at all. With an SDI application, the window manager's task bar or task manager (if any) can display the currently opened windows. In recent years, applications have increasingly added "task-bars" and "tabs" to show the currently opened windows in an MDI application, which has made this criticism somewhat obsolete. Some people call this interface "tabbed document interface" (TDI). When tabs are used to manage windows, individual ones usually cannot be resized or used simultaneously.

Another option is "tiled" panes or windows, which make it easier to prevent content from overlapping.

Some applications allow the user to switch between these modes at their choosing, depending on personal preference or the task at hand.

Nearly all graphical user interface toolkits to date provide at least one solution for designing MDIs, with the exception of Apple's Cocoa. The Java GUI toolkit, Swing, for instance, provides the class javax.swing.JDesktopPane which serves as a container for individual frames (class javax.swing.JInternalFrame). GTK+ lacks any standardized support for MDI.

Contents

Compared to single document interface

Advantages

  • With MDI (and also TDI), a single menu bar and/or toolbar is shared between all child windows, reducing clutter and increasing efficient use of screen space. This argument is less relevant on an operating system which uses a common menu bar.
  • An application's child windows can be hidden/shown/minimized/maximized as a whole.
  • Features such as "Tile" and "Cascade" can be implemented for the child windows.
  • Possibly faster and more memory efficient, since the application is shared, and only the document changes, the speed of switching between the internal windows being usually faster than having the OS switch between external windows.
  • If the windowing environment and OS lacks good window management, the application author can implement it themself.
  • Without an MDI frame window, floating toolbars from one application can clutter the workspace of other applications, potentially confusing users with the jumble of interfaces.

Disadvantages

  • Can be tricky to implement on desktops using multiple monitors as the parent window may need to span two or more monitors, hiding sections.
  • Virtual desktops cannot be spanned by children of the MDI. However, in some cases, this is solveable by initiating another parent window; this is the case in Opera and Chrome, for example, which allows tabs/child windows to be dragged outside of the parent window to start their own parent window. In other cases, each child window is also a parent window, forming a new, "virtual" MDI [1].
  • MDI can make it more difficult to work with several applications at once, by restricting the ways in which windows from multiple applications can be arranged together without obscuring each other.
  • The shared menu might change, which may cause confusion to some users.
  • MDI child windows behave differently from those in single document interface applications, requiring users to learn two subtly different windowing concepts. Similarly, the MDI parent window behaves like the desktop in many respects, but has enough differences to confuse some users.
  • Deeply nested, branching hierarchies of child windows can be confusing.
  • Many window managers have built-in support for manipulating groups of separate windows, which is typically more flexible than MDI in that windows can be grouped and ungrouped arbitrarily. A typical policy is to group automatically windows that belong to the same application. This arguably makes MDI redundant by providing a solution to the same problem.

Application examples

  • Internet Explorer 6: a typical SDI application
  • Visual Studio 6 development environment: a typical modern MDI
  • Visual Studio .NET: MDI or TDI with "Window" menu, but not both
  • Opera: Combination of MDI and TDI.
  • Paint.NET: Thumbnail-based, TDI
  • Firefox: TDI by default, can be SDI
  • GIMP: SDI with floating windows. (Limited MDI is available via a plug-in [2])
  • GIMPshop: A fork of GIMP aiming to be more like Adobe Photoshop. The Windows version has limited MDI.[3]
  • Adobe Photoshop: MDI under MS Windows. In newer versions, toolbars can move outside the frame window. Child windows can be outside the frame unless they are minimized or maximized.
  • Adobe Acrobat: MDI until version 7.0 (Windows-only); SDI default in 8.0 (configurable to MDI); SDI only in 9.0.
  • Microsoft Excel 2003: SDI if you start new instances of the application, but MDI if you click the "File → New" menu (but child windows optionally appear on the OS taskbar)
  • Microsoft Word 2003: MDI until Microsoft Office 97. After 2000, Word has a Multiple Top-Level Windows Interface, thus exposing to shell individual SDI instances, while the operating system recognizes it as a single instance of an MDI application. In Word 2000, this was the only interface available, but 2002 and later offer MDI as an option. Microsoft Foundation Classes (which Office is loosely based on) supports this metaphor since version 7.0, as a new feature in Visual Studio 2002.
  • UltraEdit: Combination of MDI and TDI (a true MDI interface with a tab bar for quick access).
  • VEDIT: Combination of MDI and TDI (a true MDI interface with a tab bar for quick access). Special "Full size" windows act like maximized windows, but allow smaller overlapping windows to be used at the same time. Multiple instances of Vedit can be started, which allows it to be used like an SDI application.
  • Notepad++, PSPad, TextMate and many other text editors: TDI
  • EmEditor: Options for either SDI or MDI.
  • Macromedia Studio for Windows: a hybrid interface; TDI unless document windows are un-maximized. (They are maximized by default.)
  • Corel Wordperfect: MDI. A user can open multiple instances of WP with a single document in each, if they have multiple versions of WordPerfect installed on their computer. Recent versions maintain a list of open documents for a given window on the status bar at the bottom of the window, providing a variant of the TDI.
  • Zeus for Windows: Combination of MDI and TDI (a true MDI interface with a tab bar for quick access).
  • mIRC: MDI by default, can also work on SDI mode

IDE-style interface

Graphical computer applications with an IDE-style interface (IDE) are those whose child windows reside under a single parent window (usually with the exception of modal windows). An IDE-style interface is distinguishable form of Multiple Document Interface (MDI), because all child windows in an IDE-style interface are enhanced with added functionality not ordinarily available in MDI applications. Because of this, IDE-style applications can be considered a functional superset and descendant of MDI applications.

Examples of enhanced child-window functionality include:

  • Dockable child windows
  • Collapsable child windows
  • Tabbed document interface for sub-panes
  • Independent sub-panes of the parent window
  • GUI splitters to resize sub-panes of the parent window
  • Persistence for window arrangements

Collapsible child windows

A common convention for child windows in IDE-style applications is the ability to collapse child windows, either when inactive, or when specified by the user. Child windows that are collapsed will conform to one of the four outer boundaries of the parent window, with some kind of label or indicator that allows them to be expanded again.

Tabbed document interface for sub-panes

In contrast to (MDI) applications, which ordinarily allow a single tabbed interface for the parent window, applications with an IDE-style interface allow tabs for organizing one or more subpanes of the parent window.

IDE-style application examples

Macintosh

Because only a fixed system-wide menubar exists on the Macintosh, but the concept of nested windows does not, Macintosh applications in general might be thought of[by whom?] as somewhat similar to MDI with a fullscreen see-through parent window (if one ignores multiple monitors, virtual desktops (Spaces) and the interleaving of windows from multiple applications).

Mac OS and its GUI are document-centric instead of window-centric or application-centric. Every document window is an object with which the user can work. The menu bar changes to reflect whatever application the front window belongs to. Application windows can be hidden and manipulated as a group, and the user may switch between applications (i.e., groups of windows) or between individual windows, automatically hiding palettes, and most programs will stay running even with no open windows. Indeed, prior to Mac OS X, it was purposely impossible to interleave windows from multiple applications.

In spite of this, some unusual applications breaking the human interface guidelines (most notably Photoshop) do exhibit different behavior.

See also

External links


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