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As I recently switched from Linux to Mac, I started wondering why Cmd ⌘+Tab and Cmd ⌘+` work the way they work. The first switches between applications, the latter between windows of the same application.

I can think of two UX issues with this design:

  1. When switching between windows, it requires cognitive effort to know / remember which one to use. Especially since a lot of applications are now served as web services, different browser windows can provide very different application functionality.

  2. The two key combinations work differently: Repeatedly pressing (and releasing) Cmd ⌘+Tab switches back and forth between two applications (even if you have more open), while doing the same with Cmd ⌘+` cycles through all windows of that application. The functionality is the same if you have two windows / applications, but there's no single hotkey to switch back and forth between two browser windows if you have a third browser window open.

Is there some (possibly historic) rationale on why these work as they do, or reasoning why this is a good idea?

(This is not to mention the problem that on many non-US keyboards ` is in a horrible location, and you have to manually configure the shortcut to whatever key is above Tab to make it at all usable.)

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  • Actually you can switch back and forth between open windows. Use either Cmd ⌘ + < or Cmd ⌘ + >. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 12:23
  • This exists on Windows too with Alt + Tab swapping to the next app open. In both Windows and Mac if you keep the Alt/Command key held down and press tab you can cycle through the apps only switching to that app when releasing the alt/command key. Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 13:41
  • @StephenKeable I know it works that way, that's not the point in the question. The difference between Win/Linux and Mac is that alt-tab switches windows, cmd-tab switches applications (even if the app has multiple windows open).
    – Sampo
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 18:08
  • @Sampo so it does, didn't notice that nuance on Windows, spend most of my time on a Mac. Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 7:50
  • I wrote a blog post further going through the usability problems the Mac OS app switcher has: codeforhire.com/2018/03/25/…
    – Sampo
    Commented Mar 25, 2018 at 1:54

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