tl;dr How should an application handle windows for content-savable-to-disk (sort of documents) behave under an OS that has menu-bar-per-window (Windows, Gnome Shell) and under an OS that has single OS-wide menu bar (OS X, Unity)?


My company has an application that creates two different kinds of documents: an 'activity' document—configuring report parameters—which then spawns one or more 'report' document—graphs and other read-only data that the user may save to disk. The application currently only runs on Windows, and currently uses a browser-like interface: the application has a single window (single menu bar) and each new document (of either type) creates a new tab.

I'm specifying the port to Ubuntu and OS X now, and trying to decide whether or not to create one window per activity and one window per report, or stick with browser-style interface.

The Impact of Each Decision

  • On an OS with a single menu bar (OS X, Ubuntu w/Unity) it's fine to create one window per activity and report. The user may choose to close the last window and still the app remains running, with menu commands to open an old document or create a new activity.

  • On an OS with one menu bar per window, closing the last window must quit the application. Thus, if I have a window per document, I have to create some window (a new activity document) when the application is launched.

  • If I go the browser-style route, I am flaunting the Apple Human Interface Guidelines regarding document windows (and losing out on nice features like the proxy icon in the title bar). Further (unless I go a horrible MDI-style path, or the browser-like ability to move tabs to new windows) I lose the ability to visually compare reports side-by-side.

The Question(s)

Are there any guidelines for this on Ubuntu, especially when programming an app to be used between the two different application menu paradigms? What heuristic applies when deciding between browser-style tabbed 'documents' versus window-per-document?

  • I've seen plenty of applications do the tabbed interface very well. DBMSes do it well (Oracle, SQL Server) and Notepad++. What's keeping you from using that sort of paradigm?
    – Ben Brocka
    Apr 18, 2012 at 19:45
  • @Brocka 1. Apple HIG; 2. Side-by-side comparisons: 3. Lack of Proxy Document in title bar for OS X.
    – Phrogz
    Apr 18, 2012 at 20:28
  • SQL Server and Notepad++ work absolutely perfectly for side-by-side. I guess it's a bit of a problem for OSX though
    – Ben Brocka
    Apr 18, 2012 at 21:55

1 Answer 1


I recommend following OS X guidelines and using one window per document. In general, people will be using other applications far more than yours, and you should conform to the other applications they use on that OS. This is why Microsoft Office for Mac behaves quite differently than Office for Windows... consistency with the OS is far more important than consistency with your application on other platforms.

For Ubuntu (and Linux in general), there are no hard and fast rules. Linux in general has much fewer guidelines because the Window manager (and thus the entire OS windowing behavior) is often changed by the user. I would recommend using the interface that you believe is most clear and ignore the windowing conventions for Linux. However if you are able to determine (or dictate) which windowing environment is most prevalent among your users then you should follow the pattern most common with software bundled in that environment.

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