The dark side of tabbed browsing

April 6, 2007 ⋅ 5 Comments »

On the Humanized weblog, Aza critiques the tab implementation in Firefox 2.0. A comment by “Zephyr” brings up a question I’ve asked before: “How is a row of tabs so spectacularly different from a row of task bar buttons?” I think the simple answer is: it’s not. If anything, the taskbar is more useful, because it can include more than just web pages.

This is just another example of what I’ve been calling “segregating data based on its form”. We are forced to interact with data objects in different ways, just because they come in a specific form. Is a web page really that different from a Word document stored on my hard drive? No. So why do we have two completely different ways of interacting with them?

In the end, it’s really just a problem of modes. By having tabs in the browser, we make web browsing more of a mode. You can use tabs when you are browsing documents on the internet, but not when you are browsing documents on your hard drive. Is it just me, or has anyone else ever caught themselves control-clicking on attachments in Outlook?


  1. Chris - April 7, 2007:

    But ... doesn't that make tabs in FireFox good - and that everything else is just bad?

    I catch myself wanting to use tabs in many instances. It just seems the browser is the only one which has allowed you to do it.

    And ... perhaps a tab on the web is no different than a Word document - but if they're all going to be organized in the same space, it needs to be better than the task bar. Assuming a few things open at a time (especially multiple items of the same application), you quickly can't tell which one is which ... and just end up clicking through them all. At least most webpages have distinct icons, which show on the FF tab bar even when I have a pile of tabs open. If I open 10 different instances of IE on the task bar ... yikes. (Or 10 different Word documents, for that matter).


  2. e - April 9, 2007:

    I really like FF's tabbed display because it provides me with more direct access to a particular type of information. When I'm browsing the web, I'm looking for one of two types of information: documentation and tutorials. With a separate tab stack, I just have to alt-tab to Firefox, then I can ctrl-tab and shift-ctrl-tab to the web page that I'm looking for.

    If the pages were broken out into separate windows, I'd have a hell of a time finding the desired window. For example: when I'm working, I have four apps open at all times (browser, mail, IM, IDE), and between three and 10(ish) web pages. If those were all considered equal, then I'd have a hell of a time tabbing back and forth between them, especially with Windows' alt-tab scheme (which treats open items as a stack).

    Keep in mind that FF isn't the only app that uses the concept of application-managed tabs: most IDEs will provide swallowed editors (my favourites: vim and Eclipse), as will IM clients (gaim). This isn't a bad thing. It allows the user to keep conceptually related items together: if I want to edit code, I alt-tab to my IDE, then ctrl-F6 my way to the file I want; if I want to view a web page, I alt-tab to FF, then ctrl-tab my way to the web page I want.

    Think of the managed editors as a really shallow tree. Instead of having to traverse the entire list of open data blobs (aka "files") when I want to modify one, I traverse the much shorter list of tasks, then traverse the open blobs until I find the one I want. This scheme breaks down when the data blobs stop being segregated by task: when my mail editor is also a web page, then I have to push that tab into a different window.

  3. Patrick - April 9, 2007:

    It allows the user to keep conceptually related items together: if I want to edit code, I alt-tab to my IDE, then ctrl-F6 my way to the file I want; if I want to view a web page, I alt-tab to FF, then ctrl-tab my way to the web page I want.

    Actually, I'd argue that it prevents the user from keeping conceptually related items together. Which is more important -- the content, or the mode of access? Tabs in Firefox are grouping items by mode of access. I want to group by actual content: to have the documentation in the same window as the code. To me, that is more "conceptually related" than having the documentation alongside BoingBoing or whatever.

  4. Gajendra Agrawal - April 13, 2007:

    I completely agree that a web page comes in a different form of information. I guess user is not forced to view the data with different mode. You can IE5 who is stopping you. The "Browse" word came because you encode the internet information in different way than you read a word document because of its form. In web there is a lot hyper linked contextual information, some time you know it and sometime you don’t know it. If you know it read the web page like a word doc otherwise browse that in a different tab. I guess tab helps one to remains in context of information, context of domain, context of the topic. That’s why tabs came in internet browsing and not in word software.

  5. » Rethinking overlapping windows - September 7, 2007:

    [...] 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.” [...]