There are a lot of articles comparing the OSX Dock to the Windows Taskbar. A better comparison I think would be to compare the Dock to the Start Menu, whose job it more accurately performs. A lot of this depends however on how you manage your desktop overall. Taking this into account this will be a comparison of not only these two tools but the workflows that each encourages.
I chose not to include Linux’s desktop experience in this analysis as it would have been too hard. There are several Linux desktop environments, and they tend to be very tweakable. They are also largely (though I’ll admit this trend is changing) used by power users who are more than happy to personalise the desktop around how they work.
I’m going to look at each of these in several respects. Their basic behavior is going to be a starting point. From there I’m going to look at how they integrate into the overall desktop. Then I’m going to look at the work patterns or workflows that emerge from there. You may not agree with some of my points and if you don’t I’d be glad to hear your opinions so leave me a comment.
First off lets take a look at Windows and the Start Menu. In a nutshell it is a tree structure by which to present links to programs. It does a bit more than this but this is it’s main task. Another thing to note is that it has a ‘commonly used programs’ area to make it quick and easy to access those you use most often. The Start Menu is good if you have lot’s of programs you use. It allows newly installed programs to incorporate into your desktop with minimal disruption to existing programs. You can put links to folders and files within it but that seems to be discouraged for the most part. Windows explorer is quite effective so it would make sense to focus your file management efforts there anyway. The start bar doesn’t manage running programs so this task is given to the task bar and ‘alt’ + ‘tab’.
The focus here is on programs. I see a lot of people using Windows that open the program first then open the required file from within the program. The Windows interface lends itself to having an overall picture. You can easily see all open programs at a glance via the Taskbar which is always there (you can site it to hide but most people don’t). The Start Menu is largely concerned with giving you a picture of every (or just about every) program installed on your system. It makes you aware of all the things you can do with this machine.
In contrast to this the Dock encourages a different behavior. The Dock in a nutshell is a tray at the bottom of the screen (though just like the Taskbar on Windows you can move it to other sides of the screen if you wish). You can place programs in here, you can place documents in here and you can also place folders (which then turn into stacks). Stack are a convenient way to quickly access small collections of files you use regularly. On top of this you can minimise running programs as well. It does everything really. Unlike the start menu it doesn’t have a structure, it is just a flat list. This is interesting as it encourages simplicity. If your dock is cluttered you’re not using it properly. The Dock is intended to get the process started and then get out of your way. Other programs start automatically based on your actions and the process flows. The Dock works hand in hand with Expose, the Finder and Spotlight. Although you can minimise programs to the Dock it seems to be something that the rest of the Desktop doesn’t lean towards. You’ll get the most out of the Dock by not doing this. Expose is OSX’s way of managing running programs and open files and is rather powerful compared to ‘alt’+’tab’. Finder behaves similar to Explorer on Windows however it has some novel ways to sift through files. Spotlight is a nice search feature that as well as files will search contents of files, programs, contacts etc (yes I know that with Vista Windows does this also however I still find Spotlight to work a little nicer for me).
The overall emphasis in this Desktop is on your files rather than your programs. There is also an emphasis on focus. What you are currently working on becomes the focus and everything else get’s out of the way.
Now we get to the part where we decide which one is better. They are both best depending on what you are doing. A person who works on a large number of files via only a small set of programs would obviously benefit from the program centric workflow encouraged by the Start Menu and friends. On the other hand, a person who is manipulating files by way of filtering a variety of material through several programs would find the file centric workflow that emanates from the Dock and company. You need to decide how your work fits into these patterns. Ultimately it’s not about what’s best, it’s about choice, taking the time to understand how you go about doing what you are doing and looking at how your desktop can complement that. Whichever one you use you should also take the time to personalise it to suit your needs.