Words by c.z.robertson

Tabbed browsing considered harmful

2002-07-02 01:00:00 UTC

mpt believes that Mozilla's tabbed browsing is a misfeature. I'm inclined to agree. I've used a number of tabbed interfaces and, once upon a time, I thought they were a good idea, but these days I avoid them like the plague.

The main problem I have with them is this: they only make sense when the task I'm performing requires only one application and that application is being used for only one task. This is a very rare occurence.

Browsers are a particularly good example of this. I use my browser for all sorts of different tasks. A fairly typical situation for me is to have a few windows open for leisurely browsing of a few blogs, a window or two of documentation for some API or other that I'm using in a program, and then maybe a few more for other miscellaneous tasks. Depending on what I'm doing, after a following a few links, the purpose of a window might've changed.

Using a tabbed interface in this way is just about bearable... until you start using virtual desktops. If I were using tabbed browsing with virtual desktops I'd find myself needing to split tabs out of one window and then reparent them in another. That would not be particularly efficient.

My other complaint is that tabbed UIs solve a non-existent problem... badly. We already have taskbars to solve the problem of switching between windows. Adding tabs to that means that we have to click on the application window in the taskbar and then bring the mouse up to the top of the screen (but not to the very top, so we can't take advantage of Fitts' law) to click on the tab.

The only argument for tabs is that they reduce the clutter in the taskbar. But there are far better ways of doing this. My favourite is to use virtual desktops (it's not perfect, but it's the best I know of). An alternative is to group entries in the taskbar by application, so that there is one button in the taskbar for each application and holding the mouse down on that button brings up a menu of all its windows.

In short, tabs are just a bad idea.

mpt also demonstrates very effectively that every feature has an associated cost, in terms of both development and usability, and that the cost of tabbed browsing is surprisingly high.


Eilidh NicCoinneach - http://eilidh.relique.net

2002-07-05 16:45:00 UTC

I actually find them very convenient, especially when browsing in deviantART. :)


colin_zr - http://rtnl.org.uk

2002-07-06 18:21:00 UTC

What's wrong with just having everything in separate windows? Why is it any more convenient?

Hampton Maxwell - http://www.xsta.cc/

2002-07-10 07:50:00 UTC

Because, the taskbar only functions so long as you have a reasonable number of windows open. As you open more, the site description becomes more obscured so that eventually you have to spend quite a bit of effort to find the window you're looking for. Win XP's approach is better with the program groupings, but it's also tedious because you have to click once, look at the list and click again rather than being able to find the window you want immediately. And Alt-tabbing starts to make you remember where a window is in a list if you have to sort thru 12 windows. I get very claustrophobic when I have more than 3-4 windows per desktop because I like to click the window to the top and past a certain point that becomes a pain in the ass.

The problem with implementing tabbing behavior in the window manager is that there's no good way to do it. If you don't make the default behavior to group windows by application, then you have to go through a number of steps to tabify your desktop. If you do, you're left no way of not tabbing windows and have to effectively fight the interface to untab the windows. Per application prefs lessen this, but because the window manager can't be aware of the context it can't know if you need 2 side by side browser windows or want to open 15 search results. The application on the other hand can provide more flexibility, e.g. Mozilla's middle click opens new tab, right click Open in New Window. Having used tabbed window managers for several years (pwm and Ion), I still use pwm but almost never use the tabs because they're such a pain to use correctly.

The cost in terms of clutter and confusion is worth it. You add one (albeit slightly confusing due to redundancy) item to Mozilla's menus which have far more useless stuff like "Save Page As" and "Send Page" in the link context menu in exchange for some flexibility and power that is so necessary you can't settle on a proper default. I browse with multiple desktops and commonly will have 1 browser open on one desktop for webgames, another populated with tabs for searching, and a third for work. Hopefully the new user sees Open in New Tab, tries it and forgets New Window ever existing.

Ordinarily, I would agree that having tabs makes for a poor user experience. However, tabs are not forced on the user (they only appear in the context menus - which is mainly used by experts) and browsing is a much more important app than anything else that I and many other people use. I spend more time doing web development, research, news, etc. in a browser than everything else I do. It's worth my time to learn the nuances of tabs to make my work more productive. And hopefully, the casual user who doesn't have those needs never sees them.


them - http://www.them.ws/

2002-07-10 20:55:00 UTC

On Mac OS X, which I use, there are no window tabs, just application icons, which I prefer anyway. So that point is less relevant to me.

However tabs prove useful in several instances, grouping related pages, such as following a source from an essay. Another instance is forums, hit the index page and launch several forums in a new tab.

I find tabs are easier to manage than windows, no weird stacking or hiding behind stuff.

I strongly disagree, tabbed browsing is very useful

Jeff Wilkinson

2002-07-11 14:49:00 UTC

I've switched from using MSIE as my main browser to mozilla primarily because of the convenience of tabbed browsing. I like to have a number of pages open at once, some loading, some so I don't loose my back-forward thread in others, and so forth. I non-tabbed browsers I have way too many windows open, they open all over the place, and I spend half my time managing them, moving them around, clicking to try to find the right one, and resizing them.

In mozilla, I can open tabs from my home or any page by Ctrl-clicking on links. I can see on the tabs which are finished loading, and I can easily switch back and forth between them without all the window moving and resizing.

Further, you can get the whole brower and all it's page minimized with one click, not having to minimize each window separately.

Further, as one other poster mentioned, the taskbar gets full too quickly and the buttons get short, so you can't read titles anyway.

You might also consider that many of the articles and feedback from actual users who are trying mozilla (or who use Opera) tout the tabbed browsing as one of the great features and one reason to consider switching from MSIE or Netscape v4. If the feature was SO bad as you and MPT claim, would it appeal so much to so many?

So, different strokes for different folks. You can use your multiple windows if you like, but don't take away tabbed browsing from mozilla. There are many of us who like it quite a lot, even with it's minor usability flaws...

tabbed browsing


2003-01-25 02:33:36 UTC

I concur...ahem. If you do any amount of google searching, the opening in tabs is invaluable. I would never go back to the inefficient browsing before I learned all the neat tricks to tabbed browsing , available in Phoenix (plus linky extension) and Opera as well as Mozilla. Advantage of Phoenix is speed.--- Disadvantage (no email client).

Tabs very useful.

Mike Palumbo

2002-07-11 16:30:00 UTC

I have to strongly disagree with this. First off, I think you are probably not looking at this from a standard user's point of view. Do you think 99% of Windows users even know what Virtual Desktops are, let alone how they work?? No, of course not. When I demonstrate Mozilla to other people, one of the first things I show them is the tabs, and they LOVE THEM.<br><br>I prefer to only have one Mozilla window open, but several tabs inside. Even if I have 2 Moz windows open, I'll most likely have 5 or 6 tabs per window. Compare the taskbar clutter of 2 to 12. Especially when Mozilla is not the only application running. Load up Winamp or XMMS, Gaim, Mozilla, a few IMs...even with the grouping that Linux does, it's still a fair amount on the taskbar. Do this in Windows, where there is no grouping, and it's your entire taskbar, and its very crunched.<br><br> Also, I can navigate my tabs with keyboard shortcuts, and I can pick the direction I want to move in as well. Alt+Tab is not nearly as effective, since you have to use Shift to travel in the reverse direction, making it three shortcut keys. I find Ctrl+PgUp/PgDn MUCH easier. Also, I can easily spawn a tab with a middle click on my mouse, and close it the same way.<br><Br> Tabs are one of the highly-touted features of Mozilla, and a feature which I simply cannot browse without anymore. If tabs were eliminated, I think I would probably run over to Opera as my browser. Besides, no one says you HAVE to use tabs, multiple windows are still available. They might not be a good feature for more advanced users, or people in Linux with 5 or 6 virtual desktops, but they appeal to a very fair number of people. Don't take them away, or you'll gain a very negative reaction.

Thanks all.

colin_zr - http://rtnl.org.uk

2002-07-11 23:55:00 UTC

hmm. I've been mpt'd. It's not quite the same as getting slashdotted, but it's certainly my fifteen minutes of fame.

And it's also brought some interesting dissenting views. I'm sorry, but it's the wrong side of midnight and I'm already a bit knackered, so I'm not going to go into a point-by-point response to you guys right now. But I'm mulling all this stuff over and hopefully I'll have something useful to say in a few days time.

Of particular interest to me is mpt's "If implemented by a window manager, I think the usefulness of a tabbed interface might well outweigh the clutter and confusion caused" and Hampton Maxwell's "The problem with implementing tabbing behavior in the window manager is that there's no good way to do it."

I'm wondering whether part of the problem of implementing tabbing in the window manager is that, in X's model, there's no way for apps to make use of this themselves. Would it be better if apps could be assured that tabbing would be there and that they could say to the window manager "create a new tab" or "create a new window"?

There's more on my mind, but I'll save that for later. In the mean time, thanks for the comments. Oh yes, and don't worry: I'm not about to remove tabs from anything. I don't think the Mozilla hackers are going to read a few paragraphs of ranting from me and suddenly be persuaded that this feature that they've worked on for months and which has garnered them great reviews was actually all a big mistake. Indeed, I certainly hope they wouldn't.

Good idea

Hampton Maxwell

2002-07-12 09:52:00 UTC

Letting the app tell the window manager would definitely be a step in the right direction. It would be nice if someone could talk to the Gnome and KDE guys and propose implementing tab hints.

Another possibility would be general tab UI guidelines for X in until more window managers support tabs. Of course, that's likely to lead to similar, yet frustratingly slightly differing implementations of tab behavior.

Unfortunately, users are going to be left out in the cold outside of X. In Windows, even alternate shells like LiteStep would have difficult time implementing tab support and no sizeable number of users will use them. OS X which will probably never support tabs, it doesn't even have virtual desktops.

windows grouped at taskbar

Nat Irons - http://www.bumppo.net

2002-07-12 01:08:00 UTC

"An alternative is to group entries in the taskbar by application, so that there is one button in the taskbar for each application and holding the mouse down on that button brings up a menu of all its windows."

The OS X dock does this. Apps get it for free.

I agree that tabs are a low-grade menace, but it can be tough convincing people who don't already know what Fitts' law says. (For the curious, a search at asktog.com will yield some good results.)



Eilidh NicCoinneach - http://eilidh.relique.net

2002-07-22 22:41:00 UTC

Now that was indeed a busy thread!


2003-05-12 23:59:40 UTC

"In short, tabs are just a bad idea."

Why should you assume that everyone surfs just like you?

In short, it is self evident that it is a GOOD idea because of its acceptance among several major browsers.

I use virtual desktops and tabs.No problem. I categorise "web browsing" as a single set of tasks that are all running in ONE application. Just as I would not want kdevelop spawning a whole new menus-and-all window for every new file I open. Much less bloat -- that was an existing problem that needed to be solved.

If you don't want to use it, don't use it. Sorry it confuses you. It doesn't mean it's a bad idea for the rest of us.

Tony A. Emond - http://www.clevershark.com

2003-08-21 22:28:37 UTC

I find it hard to believe that one could argue for virtual desktops over tabbed browsers with a straight face.

Virtual desktops corrupt the functionality of the mouse -- the user's first line of communication with the hardware, along with the keyboard -- and cause it to take on behaviours it really should not have. As long as you have VDs enabled you cannot get rid of that "feature".

Tab-enabled browsers, on the other hand, do NOT force you to use tabs. You're still free to open 100 browser windows and not use the tab functionality if you don't like it. Virtual Desktops are considered far more harmful than tabbed browsing ever will.

colin_zr - http://rtnl.org.uk

2003-08-22 18:35:54 UTC

"Virtual desktops corrupt the functionality of the mouse ... along with the keyboard"

I genuinely haven't got a clue what you're talking about here. Please explain.

"Tab-enabled browsers, on the other hand, do NOT force you to use tabs."

Please, I'm not a complete idiot. I never said they did. But they still clutter an interface, even if you don't use them.


2003-09-03 22:13:56 UTC

Have you tried Mozilla Firebird? It completely hides the tabbar when you are not using the tabbrowsing feature. Not to mention other nifty stuff like pop up and ad blocking, the ability for anyone to add functionality through extenstions, etc....

I see IE to be much more harmful than tabbed browsing. http://ashitaka-san.home.comcast.net/yayrant/ieharmful.html

Tabs are a gimmick

Chris Beach - http://www.chrisbeach.co.uk/techJournal/

2004-08-14 14:38:34 GMT/BST

I agree with this post. I tend to use IE6 but I have also used the Mozilla browsers (inc Firefox 0.9.3).

I find that I run browsers much like I run individual applications (esp with Weblogic consoles at work). I dock my taskbar vertically and so I can fit loads of apps & browsers on it with their titles showing.

After opening more than a handful of tabs in Firefox, the titles become obscured. _Plus_ I have found bugs in the implementation ( see "Firefox - a disappointment."

If anyone needs to use tabs but prefer IE, simply download the MyIE2 addon.


2004-12-08 00:09:36 GMT/BST

Why does it even matter? If you want to use it it's there, if you don't then don't use it. I don't think it's worth debating the merits of it.