A long time (12 years or so) ago certain two browsers were fighting over market share and neither of them featured a certain UI element which is inseparable part of today’s browser designs. Nor did most other applications had it. Then, while being annihilated, Netscape added tabs as a last struggle. That is where things started going very wrong.
Opera added them just several months later and interestingly enough IE, the culprit behind disappearance of Netscape, got them only four years later with seventh version. Tabs by then already had become all the rage and plague escaped the little browsers’ playground. Even applications that doesn’t get any real benefit from tabs implemented them.
Windows have graduated
Looking back it becomes clear why tabs were coined at all. Back then your window manager would just make sure your window is drawn on the screen and add window border. Anything else was your own responsibility. No window grouping (or even compositing) at all.
Today, if I recall correctly, in Windows® all windows are neatly grouped together by application in the taskbar and clicking on such a group will reveal a list of open windows for that specific application. You should already see how this functionality duplicates the purpose of tabs. In my opinion this is a great solution to handling tab like interface at OS level.
Likewise, you find applications instead of windows as first level citizens in OS X, GNOME, Unity and I suspect in most other modern, regular user focused desktop environments.
So in case tabs were created to compensate for a missing layer of separation they did their job well and now is the time for them to retire.
Now we all know too well that tabs never behave as any other UI element managed by OS. When you have windows you can be sure you’ll close them with
Alt+F4 unless application is doing something nasty.
Alt+Tab will change between active applications and with
Alt+` between windows of application. You never get consistent behaviour with tabs though. The shortcut to open a tab in one application may very well remove an important directory in another application. We cannot expect same level of shortcut uniformity with tabs unless they become a integral part of OS, just like windows and applications now are.
Sure the shortcuts to interact with tabs will very likely be the same in same application in all operating systems (given the application is portable at all), but on the other hand that means you have to remember different set shortcuts for every application you use.
Tabs seem to be a clear violation of DRY principle as every application has it’s own implementation of tab functionality. Either that or they use tool kit widgets not meant for that. For example
GtkNotebook was never meant to be a contraption of today’s tabbed interfaces and was designed with different requirements in mind. Still due to it’s similarity it is widely used as a good enough replacement for creating tabbed interfaces.
- Makes user learning curve steeper;
- Unpredictable – as applications implement tabbing themselves the, supposed to be, common knowledge becomes useless between different applications – there’s no guarantee for common functionality, shortcuts, position or even look;
- Not integrated into OS experience;
- Unnecessary – they were coined to alleviate the problem of missing layer of separation which is fixed now;
- Introduce additional development overhead.
Having went tab-less at least half a year ago I can confidently affirm that I’m comfortable without using tabs in most applications, especially browsers.