Don’t get me wrong, I think the mouse was probably the greatest innovation in computing since the silicon chip, but for a power user it’s really the slowest form of input.  Taking your hands off the keyboard to reach for your mouse takes easily 500 ms of time, if you’re fast.  Add to that the time to actually find the cursor (no small feat on high resolution screens), and the time to find and click on that one tiny icon you need, and you’re talking some serious productivity cramping.  Of course, you could always be one of those *nix rebels who refuse to use any graphical environment, but what’s the fun of using bash, VI and command-line compilers for the rest of your days?

The ultimate solution is of course to use the mouse as little as possible within your lush, translucent-window-bordered environment.  And since launching applications is a key part of anyone’s workflow, the ability to accomplish this task mouse-less is a big step in the right direction.

Fortunately, every major operating system now offers a way to do this easily and quickly.  In fact, these mechanisms are flexible enough to even launch documents, pictures and even emails (depending on settings).  We’ll start with Windows Vista:

Hit the Windows Meta key (the one with the Windows logo on it).  The start menu should pop-up and the search field will get the keyboard focus.  You should be able to type just the first few characters of the application you wish to launch and it will be automatically highlighted in the search results.  In the screenshot, I typed “vmware” and the selected result is “VMware Workstation”.  Hitting Enter launches the application.  If the text you typed is a command available in your PATH, Windows will automatically run that command rather than executing any search results.  Thus, I can hit Meta, type “ping /t” and hit Enter and that fancy-schmacy DOS window pops up showing me my scrolling ping.

This, I think, is one of the few features which really makes Vista worth the upgrade.  Windows will even “learn” (a fancy word for statistical analysis) from your choices based on search text and properly rank the search results in future.  For example, after typing “live” a sufficient number of times and selecting the second result, Windows Live Writer, Windows eventually ranks Windows Live Writer at the top of the list.

Of course, this feature was more or less copied from a feature Mac has had for a while now, Spotlight.  Ironically, I think the Windows copy of Spotlight is better done, but that’s another issue…

By default, Spotlight is activated with the Command+Space (sometimes referred to as Apple+Space, since the key usually has an Apple Inc. logo).  Hitting this key combo drops down the menu from the upper right-hand side and allows you to type search text.

As you can see from the screenshot, Spotlight searches applications, Dashboard widgets, System Preference panes, documents, and finally (clipped by the screenshot) all files.  If the text “itunes” had matched any of my emails in Apple Mail, those would have been found as well.  As would have any pictures in iPhoto, any songs in iTunes, and so on.  Apple’s outstanding application integration is really apparent in this feature, but the price is that the search is a bit slower than the Windows Vista clone.  Also, the Top Hit (in this case, the iTunes application) isn’t selected by default.  This means that we need to hit the Spotlight key combo, type our search text, hit the down arrow (moving our hands), and then hit the Return key to activate the result.  A bit less convenient than just typing and hitting Enter.

Not to be left out, Gnome2 does include a gpanel applet called “Deskbar” which offers identical functionality to the Mac Spotlight.  As with Spotlight, you can activate the deskbar by a key combo, and then enter the appropriate search text within.  Deskbar will consider the search for a moment, and then return any applications contained within the Gnome menu, any files, etc.  However, my favorite bit is that if you don’t select any results manually (again, using the arrow keys), Deskbar will attempt to execute the specified text as a command.  Thus, like in Vista I can simple type “java -jar ~/MyApp.jar” and away the app goes.

Unfortunately, by default deskbar is a) not added to the panel, and b) not bound to a sane keyboard sequence (Alt+F3 is rather difficult to hit).  Adding deskbar to the panel is as simple as right clicking the panel, selecting “Add to Panel…” and then choosing “Deskbar”.  Rebinding the keyboard shortcut is almost as simple.  Right click on the deskbar icon, choose “Preferences”.  Then select “View” and click on the “Keyboard shortcut to focus” field.  Now, press the key combo you wish to assign to deskbar.  Personally, I use Alt+Enter, but you can use whatever best fits your workflow.  (warning to Mac fans, Alt+Space doesn’t work)