Let’s all cry that Tabs are Difficult.

I was catching up on my backed up on my feeds, and I stumbled upon a link to some whiny post that tabs are redundant. I’m not sure if you knew (and if you didn’t – welcome to the internet!) that there is no better way of letting the world know that you are a stupid n00b than complaining that you do not understand the tab paradigm in the modern browsers, and that IE 6.0 had it right. But this post was actually made by a blogger I usually respect and often link to – Jeff Atwood.

Jeff usually has lot’s of interesting, and thought provoking things to say and thus the frequent linkage from here. I mean, maybe he is getting old and can’t keep up with the way things are done these days or something? I don’t know. But I’m trying to take what he says seriously out of respect.

So what is he saying there exactly? He is complaining that it is really hard for him to find his GeeeeMail across his 16 monitors and 57 instances of the browser open. I’m not surprised. If I had a million monitors and kept opening multiple instances of Internet Exploder all over the place I would also get confused. Fortunately I do not have this problem for several reasons:

  1. I use Gmail Manager extension for Firefox which shows me if I got any new emails in every instance of the browser
  2. I hardly ever have more than one instance of the browser open – and if I do, it’s usually for testing so the second browser is probably IE or Opera – so no confusion there
  3. My virtual workspace is organized by task – so I always know where my primary browser instance lives
  4. Within the browser my tabs are organized:
    1. First tab is always Google Reader
    2. Second is always Twitter
    3. Third is always the WordPress dashboard
    4. Rest are random websites
  5. I bookmark and close the tabs I don’t use

So for me finding Gmail is trivial – jump to the nearest FF instance, and hit the bottom right corner of the browser where the Gmail Manager lives. Then I close it after use. If I want Google Reader, I just click on the very first tab in my browser. I never get lost on my own desktop because I usually try not to run millions of applications at once, and if I do, I find ways to logically separate them for fast access.

This statement kills me though:

(…) if GMail had been in its own browser window, I could have found it instantly by looking in the taskbar, or at worst, by visually selecting it from even a smallish thumbnail image. Because GMail was in a tab, I wasted my time trying to find it, and I wasted even more time needlessly launching another browser. And this isn’t an isolated incident. This happens to me every day. More times than I’d care to admit.

So how can we fix this? How can we integrate tabs with the existing navigational features of the operating system, such as the taskbar, and Exposé? I keep coming back to search as the dominant computing metaphor. The only thing I can think of is a plain-text search facility where I type “Gmail”, and the OS would automatically highlight that tab (or window) and bring it to the front. That presupposes a very high level of integration between the application tabs and the operating system, however.

Or, and correct me if I’m wrong – this suggestion might be way out there, you can just open frequently used applications in their own dedicated windows. So you would like have your Gmail in it’s own solitary instance of IE, your Twitter in another one and your Bloglines in yet another. Who said that since IE 7.0 has tabs you must use them? If you feel they are a productivity drain, use them sparingly.

Then there is this:

I wish I could “tear off” tabs into standalone windows on demand, too.

Jeff, have you ever heard of the KISS principle? When I want to “tear-off” a tab in Firefox I use the mysterious secret context menu function known as “Open in New Window”. Alternatively I can always do something like:

Ctrl+L Ctrl+C Ctrl+W Ctrl+N Ctrl+V Enter

It is a short sequence with one finger firmly planted on Ctrl that most Firefox users will find easy to follow. Jump to the address bar, copy URL, close tab, open new window, paste URL and go to it. If I remember correctly, IE 7.0 opens new windows with the contents of the current tab preloaded by default – so you can actually save like 3 keystrokes out of the above if you use it.

It’s funny but I can’t figure out what exactly Jeff wants. He says he likes tabs and uses them all the time. But then he says they are hard to use, and can’t be searched easily and they should be more like modular little windows that can be snapped in and out of place. But at the same time he says he hates the way Office implements exactly that kind of a feature.

I guess he is ranting for the sake of ranting. Personally, I love tabs. Tabbed interfaces create uniform workspaces that save screen realestate and prevent taskbar clutter. Right now I have 10 tabs open in Firefox, and two terminals open on the same virtual desktop. If each tab was a separate window, my taskbar would be full right now and would start grouping things, or scrolling in some annoying way. And I instantly know that first 3 or 4 tabs are my goto web apps, while the rest are just random. When I start a blog post, and do a lot of tab switching I drag it’s tab close to the front so it’s my 5th one on the tab bar for easy access.

But then again I’m working here with just a single display – not 1757 of them like Jeff has. So perhaps I’m just behind times.

Then I found a telling clue to what is Jeffs problem deep in the comment thread:

Again, the disconnect between Alt+Tab and Ctrl+Tab– it’s highly modal, and users hate modes. It’s so hard to remember which one you’re in at any given time. Is this a tab? Is it a window? Why should *I* have to worry about treating them so differently?

Ah! So this explains it. Jeff hates modal behavior. That’s why he seems to have a stick up his butt about the whole tabbing deal. I call this syndrome Vi Envy. There are three kinds of users in these world – those who understand vi, those who wish they could understand vi and those who are to clueless to know what vi is. Jeff seems to be one of those people who never really figured out how to deal with the modal approach of the Vi and it left him scarred for life, always seeking that unified UI experience.

Me – I don’t mind the modal behavior. Hell, I jump between operating systems all the time and it doesn’t bother me much. I adjust my behavior to the limitations and strengths of the system and/or environment I’m working with. For example – people always cry that Eclipse is slow, but I never notice. I used to use it all the time on a 700 MHz machine with 256 MB of tam, and the speed was acceptable for me because I figured out how to be gentle with it. If you know your OS, and know your applications then working efficiently within them becomes a second nature.

[tags]jeff artwood, tabs, tabbed interfaces, firefox, ie, browser tabs, browsers[/tags]

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3 Responses to Let’s all cry that Tabs are Difficult.

  1. Jake UNITED STATES Konqueror Ubuntu Linux says:

    Wow, that is pitiful. Tabs are easy to adjust to. He just can’t seem to get them right. I use tabs in text editors, web browsers, consoles, IM, and several other applications. I don’t ever have issues.

    btw- This is the first time I believe I have posted a comment using anything other than trusty Firefox 1.5. I’m giving Konqueror a whirl.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Yup. And it’s not like anyone is holding a gun to his head telling him to use them. It’s like:

    “I hate tabs!”
    “Don’t use them then!”
    “But they are so cool!”
    “Then use them!”
    “But I hate them. They like don’t make sense!”


    Oh, and Konq is a decent browser. Safari uses the same rendering engine btw – and apple gave back some code back to the KHTML community. I still prefer Firefox because of my extensions. :)

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  3. Jake UNITED STATES Konqueror Ubuntu Linux says:

    Oh, and Konq is a decent browser. Safari uses the same rendering engine btw – and apple gave back some code back to the KHTML community. I still prefer Firefox because of my extensions. :)

    Yes, it has a lot of great stuff built in. I just wish it had a bit more… I knew about Apple borrowing. They have been rather reluctant to give code back. :\

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