Here is a question I've been trying to find an answer to for 20 years: Why don't modern operating systems (e.g. MS-Windows, OS/X) still use the intuitive and space saving right-click 'pop-down' menu bars like their ancestors had (e.g. Amiga Workbench)?

The idea being that right-clicking (and holding) anywhere in the OS momentarily reveals a hidden context menu bar at the top of the screen. The menus and options available on this bar are context-sensitive, based on the object/app in focus at the time. This menu bar serves a dual purpose: it contains both context-specific menus as well as global system menus. The result is a larger, cleaner productivity space, with control still available at your fingertips.

Surely this is a better approach than the space consuming, always-visible application 'ribbon' bars and the various task bar/dock options plied upon us by most system vendors? The closest I've seen to this in recent years are various Ubuntu builds.


  • 1
    Hidden menus are by no menus 'surely better' than always visible ones. It really depends on the person.
    – DA01
    Feb 18, 2014 at 7:37
  • 1
    In that time, resolutions weren't that "big" and saving space for the work to be done instead of showing menus made sense. Feb 18, 2014 at 13:15

3 Answers 3


I'm not familiar with the Amiga Workbench UI that you describe, and from what I understand the idea is that there's no menu that's visible at all times, and you need to right-click anywhere and hold, which makes the menu appear, and then while holding the mouse button down you need to operate the menu. This is a screenshot that I found.

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I can see a few issues with this concept.

  1. Right-click has zero visibility. There is nothing to suggest to the user that she needs to right-click in order to display the actions. That's why Microsoft, for instance, has a rule that there should never be an action that's available only from the right-click menu. There should always be some other way of reaching that action even if it's hidden down several levels of other menus.

  2. There is no current status indication. It's also a visibility problem but it's distinct from the previous one. With a visible menu, when you select an item, you can see which actions can be performed on it. Irrelevant actions disappear or become grayed out. That contributes to your learning of the system, your sense of control, and your general awareness of what's going on. With an invisible menu you need to take the first step towards performing an action (displaying the menu) before you can know whether it's enabled (until you've learned the system).

  3. Difficulty of operation. It's physically much more difficult to operate a bunch of cascading menus while holding down a button, than it is without that constraint.

  4. Proximity of the menu. Today's right-click menus appear at the mouse cursor. This is literally the closest possible location of the menu to the cursor. If we replaced it with a top menu, it would mean that instead of having all your contextual actions within reach (a few inches at the most), you may need to drag your mouse across the entire screen to reach any action. And that while holding the button down.


There are a few possible answers to that, but one of the most important, is the amount of options available right now on each program. Not to mention the integration of elements to that menu.

For instance on windows, when you install a program, if it is relevant, it will add an option to the context menu, which will appear when you do a right click on the right object. But that simple action, requires the manipulation of the registry, not to mention the consideration about who will see that item on the menu, only the user that install the software or everybody?

Since you talk about the ribbon, you seem to focus on things like Office and similar application, as I mentioned before, there are hundreds of options available, that would be very difficult to put on a small menu.

Plus if you try to combine system specific and application options on one single menu, the confusion would be enormous, plus many options would have to be repeated in one way or the other, like the classic copy and paste.

Some systems like BeOS had a very useful right click menu, and that was more recent than Amiga, but even that would be very difficult now.

On Linux, depending on what window manager you use, the only thing you have is the right click menu, but it is not, usually, mixed, it changes between application and system, so we can say that is contextual. So for instance if you have something like fluxbox, openbox or any other variation, you will not see any bar with a start menu, and the only way to get that functionality is with the right click, or a shortcut keystroke.

I can not speak about Mac, but I'm sure that they share the same kind of problems.

  • The OS/X operating systems seem to take a hybrid top menu approach: context-sensitive menus (including global system menus) at the top of the screen, but not hidden and not right-click accessible. I vaguely remember earlier Mac OSes having right-click pop down menus like the Amiga though. Mac users feel free to correct me.
    – HamishKL
    Feb 18, 2014 at 19:28

Just came across this, and sorry for dragging it up, but just to answer a couple of things. First, in Vitaly's answer, he's referring to a screenshot of Workbench 1.x from the 80s :) Even Workbench had moved on substantially from that, with version 2 being released in 1990 that included menu items being ghosted if they weren't relevant in the current context. The other points are generally relevant, although I would argue that the menu not being visible is only an issue to someone who hasn't used the OS at all. Like swipe gestures on a mobile phone screen, once used a couple of times the hidden menus become very intuitive - not to mention being one of the main points talked about in the manual that was supplied with the Amigas.

Nevertheless, the most recent update of the OS (first released in 2006) includes various options that answer your other points, including "sticky" menus that stay open when you right-click, menus that pup up at the mouse pointer's location, and context-specific menus as opposed to global menus with irrelevant items ghosted.

As for the original question, it seems that all three OSes that you mention (Windows, AmigaOS, OSX) are reluctant to change their paradigms since their loyal users won't generally like the change. Look at the number of people that didn't (and still don't) like the ribbon UI. Windows has always had the options visible at the top of each application window, Mac OS has always had them visible at the top of the screen, and AmigaOS has always had them hidden and has always called the right mouse button the "menu button" in its documentation. None are likely to change because that would change the feel of the interface, and I suspect this is why Windows is still using unintuitive DOS-era shortcuts with a mixture of qualifiers (e.g. alt+F4 to quit) rather than the more intuitive ones used by MacOS and AmigaOS (e.g. command+Q to quit), despite having Windows keyboard buttons available for 20 years now.

Personally I find having menu bars visible on every window distracting and unnecessary, but that's but my humble opinion...

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