Tab Dance

TabsApple has just released the second public beta of its upstart Safari Web browser with the prominent addition of tabbed browsing. This is a user interface feature that’s old hat to users of Netscape 7, Camino, Opera etc. It’s relatively new to me, having only recently emerged from my seclusion inside of the Internet Explorer tank, and I’m already a huge fan. There’s a camp that dislikes tabs but I can’t even imagine why. First, tab usage is entirely optional and second, it’s so much more efficient and organized than toggling between multiple windows.

Perhaps opposition to tabs is borne from their somewhat awkward implementations in other browsers. There is a slightly unwieldy interaction challenge in creating a semantic relationship between the tabs and a browser’s address field. The latter is the heart of any browser head, the largest visual target at the top of the browser window. And yet an address field is conceptually subordinate to any tab, which is to say that there should be a field for each.

Navigate the Netscape Way

Netscape believes the address field should reside above the tabs, preserving its prominence at the top of the window. This creates an orderly presentation, but it implies that the field is superior to the tabs, and it breaks the immediate association that a user might make between the two. Not irreparably, of course, as most users will mentally reunite the two soon enough (hopefully). Still, the effect is only visually clean; it remains conceptually untidy.


Tab Me to the Opera

Opera takes a strictly hierarchical approach and places the address field directly below each tab, so that there is, almost literally, a field for each. In contrast to Netscape, this is conceptually immaculate and yet visually jarring, as the address field is buried beneath at least three strata of controls. With one stratum composed of grossly oversized (and, in my opinion, pretty ugly) icons and another crammed with three search fields that could easily be mistaken for an address field, it becomes very difficult to locate the address bar.


Tabs on Safari

Apple, typically, serves up a much more elegant solution in Safari by simply turning the tabs upside down. I’m sure some will hate this approach, but for me it ingeniously resolves the awkwardness of the challenge, allowing the address field to maintain its position and prominence while still being subordinate to each tab. The upside down tabs break their association with the browser body — which, as the obvious central focus, is safely consigned to its own devices — and frees the address field and the tabs to cement their relationship.


What’s so smart about this tactic is that it simplifies the challenge: Safari chooses to deal with only the address field and the tabs, whereas Netscape and Opera, perhaps unconsciously, try to unite those two with the page body as well. It’s a small example, but this is indicative of Apple’s secret to design: rather than labor over an inelegant solution to an uncooperative problem, they prefer to restate the problem eloquently, thus yielding eloquent solutions. Some people hate them for this.

With everything negative I’ve said about the Netscape and Opera approaches, you might assume that I don’t think much of those browsers. On the contrary, I think very highly of them, and my admiration grows the more I use them. Like Safari, they are continually innovating (there are some Opera features that are pantently brilliant) and they are committed to standards compliance. These are two huge points that I couldn’t possibly claim about Internet Explorer with a straight face.