Rethinking overlapping windows

September 7, 2007 ⋅ 3 Comments »

Jeff Atwood writes about the problem with tabbed interfaces, something I wrote about not too long ago. Jeff’s main complaint is that “tabbed interfaces obscure as much as they organize.”

I use tabs a lot, but I rarely have more than one browser window open. In that case, I find it’s pretty easy to find that tab I’m looking for. Click on the Firefox icon on the taskbar, then do a visual search through the open tabs. But when I have multiple browser windows open, each with multiple tabs, I have the same problem as Jeff: I lose track of the pages I had open, I start to open duplicate copies of GMail, etc. Basically, everything goes to hell.

The question is, what can be done to fix things?

I think part of the problem is that tabs in the web browser are a pretty arbitrary way of organizing things. The use of tabs implies a kind of hierarchy: there are top-level items (windows) which contain lower-level items (tabs). This works well when the top-level window maps to a well-defined “task”. For example, in Eclipse or Visual Studio, you are usually working on a single project at a time, and the tabs contain source files that you’re working on. But now that we are spending more and more of our time on the web, web browsing is hardly a “task”. It’s really just a mode, and should ideally be as transparent as possible.

We need to think about why we use tabs in the first place. I think the main reason most people use tabs is to reduce visual clutter, both in the taskbar (on Windows) and in the overlapping windows (on Windows and OS X). If that’s the case, then it points to a problem with current window management techniques. To be honest, I’ve always found overlapping windows to be a clunky way of doing things. With large displays and multiple monitors, we seem to be stretching the limits of the overlapping window paradigm.

Instead of rethinking the tabbed interface, I think it’s time to rethink the overlapping window paradigm.


  1. Ry - September 15, 2007:

    I'm a tab-maniac. My Galeon has approximately 30 plus tabs open at any given time. Due to number of tabs, I have it on the left side of my browser in order to maximize the space and ease of finding the tab I want.

    But yes, I do sometimes have multiple Gmail tabs open....

  2. Ullrich - January 21, 2008:

    Interesting is the fact that Apple introduced with Spaces an new hirarchy above windows. And i find myself with the same problems. Suddenly i have the same Finder windows open in different Spaces. And i keep using Spaces-Exposee to find my windows. Just imaging finding lost Tabs in different browser windows across different Spaces...

  3. Patrick - January 21, 2008:


    You're right, I hadn't thought of that (I'm still running Tiger). But now that I think about it, I do remember having the same problem when I used to run Linux on my desktop.