Tom Insam

tabbed browsing

Dave Hyatt, the insane fool who is the public face of Safari, has actually asked for comments about the UI of Safari. So naturally every single comment and trackback mentions tabbed browsing. Hell, there's even a comment saying roughly 'I've never used tabbed browsing, but lots of people clearly like it, so they should put it in'. I consider this another good reason to kill all humans.

My house as a whole isn't a big fan of tabbed browsing. blech will grouch on about them for hours. hitherto has actually ranted in a public place about them. But given the massive number of pro-tab advocates out there, I find myself needing to stick an oar in and splash as many people as possible as well, just to keep things even. And not only that, but I have the opportunity to trackback to someone who's invited it. Oh, the excitement.

So. Tabbed browsing. it's been around a while, I personally first remember it in Opera, but my first serious exposure to it was in Galeon, under Gnome 1. And verily, it was Good. I could put my browser on one virtual desktop, set all links to open in tabs, and then click links merrily from other apps. When I was done, I'd go back to the desktop that held my web browser, and gosh, look, there's a big heap of links here! Shiny! When I switched to Phoenix (or whatever it's called nowadays) under Gnome 2, I used in exactly the same way. And it was still good. And faster than galeon, even.

But that's all missing the point. I was forced to use tabs there because the window-switching system is totally brain-dead under Gnome. I typically have 20+ browser windows open. Hell, I can have 40 if I get distracted. (aside: I loved galeon for this - the crash recovery was second to none. I'm afraid to open that many windows under any other operating system because if the browser dies, I lose them all.)

The problems with window-based browsing:

  • Opening links pops a window to the top of the stack. I hope Alt-Tab works properly, because it's a pain finding what you were just doing otherwise.
  • If I'm using a taskbar, all the window buttons get tiny. I can't pick the browser I want. I can't pick any other app either, for that matter. All the buttons say 'Docu...' - really handy, that.
  • If I'm using some sort of window list, all my non-browser windows are hidden in the huuuge list of browsers. Oh, and the 10 windows called 'Terminal', that was great too.
  • I'm not even going to describe what the Alt-Tab list looked like. Ok, I am. 40 'web' icons. Brilliant.

I'm now on a different platform. I use a mac. And the mac has per-application switching. So my Command-Tab list is manageable, I can switch between a relatively small number of running apps using the dock. And once I'm using the app, I can have a window list of all the windows belonging to that application. So I know I want a terminal, so I switch to the terminal app, and then I can flick through the terminals I have open until I find the right one. I can switch to the web browser, and easily get a list of open web browser windows. In fact, I can click and hold on the web browser icon, and jump straight to a required web browser with one (long) click. Handy.

Essentially, the task/window switching on the mac isn't like windows. It's very different, much more than appears superficially. Under windows, and under linux, tabbed browsing seems to work, giving you the same 'switch to app, then decide what window I want' behavior. It's a different interface on the whole MDI nightmare that windows suffered from for so long. Under linux... hell, linux is a world to itself, as per usual, and I'm not going to judge it. But the mac has a way of dealing with this problem. It's always had a way of dealing with this problem. People need to stop coming up with other ways to solve it, ways that aren't as good.

Oh. And an actual feature I would like? It would be nice to be able to click on an RSS feed from a site, and have NetNewsWire subscribe to it. So I need the ability to set programs to be run for specific MIME-types. That would be nice.