A Flawed Browser UI: the case of too many TABS

I have been watching myself avoid working in a variety of clever ways.

Most of them center around the browser, and the "tabbed" browser UI is troubling me more and more. You could say most of them are flaws in my own use, but I think they are common enough that solutions should be found.

The tabbed browser is broken. It's a bunch of tabs, often ordered badly, and the overhead of navigating it all is making computers gradually less useful for me.

I use browsers for News, for Research, for Apps, and as part of a collaborative experience.

People send links via IM, Email, or Facebook, and I click on them, which immediately disconnects the content from the original discussion. I don't know who to reply to about a certain article, because it's unclear exactly why that tab is actually open. I don't know when the tab was created, and I don't know which task I was doing when I opened it.

Often I will have 100 tabs open. I have seen Safari eat my wife's Mac with way way more than this. The "hunt" through the ten windows and 100 tabs is no fun and needs to get fixed.

Some of my tabs will be half-read articles that were interrupted by another task. Some of them will be things I've mostly read but didn't close. They don't close themselves, they don't even try...

Some of the tabs I've never looked at. Some of them are lazy bookmarks, things I'm keeping open so I can compare "A vs. B" later, except it's really hard to do that, because lining them up is quite hard.

But I do notice that I have "sets" of things...stories opened from a discussion, references from a Google search on an obscure programming term. And rarely do I think in advance, "I'm going to create a new window and start a new task."

We could have sets. We could have tasks. The computer could figure it out and make it make sense. I am really sure that a 3GHz quad core CPU could figure out "these things are all links from google results pages with setTimeout in the query string."

(And yeah, IE does some color-coding by domain, but this is just visual noise, not organization.)

I need some really amazing ways to group tabs by task, to save sets of them, and to have the UI connect back to the places I came from.

If I do a Google search to figure out how to write some portable Javascript, I will open ten tabs along the way, and then I will eventually find the single page that shows me the answer, and the whole task should go away in one click. Today, I have to close the 10 pages individually, and the Google search window that was around in case none of those pages contained an answer. Wouldn't a great UI do this grouping for me?

If I click on a link from Facebook or Twitter, and then I want to leave a comment for the person who sent me that direction, why should I have to look through tabs to do this? Wouldn't a great UI link these pages together?

Or maybe I'm shopping online for the best energy-efficient lightbulb, and I've opened 50 pages talking about that, and Windows update comes along, and I say, man, I want to come back to this later. Wouldn't a great UI let me save them as one 'library' of stuff and close 50 tabs at once?

And what about when I sit down at my computer to look something up, but instead there's some phenomenally juicy page on the top of my browser that makes me forget what I was going to accomplish and read it instead? Wouldn't a great UI somehow ask me what I wanted to do when I woke up my laptop? Google could (and should) make this fantastic.

I am seeing a ton of add-ons and random hacks that try to do things like this, but I think this set of problems is so core to the experience and so important to get right that we have to re-think the organization of the browser.

Adding tabs to the browser was a huge step forward for so many reasons, but it is time to help people organize the work they are doing on their computers, not confuse them with distractions and 100 tabs at a time, which is mostly what my computer is, today.

Today, I usually just quit the whole thing, lose all my state, just to avoid having to look through the entire mess. This can be so much better, and it doesn't even take a miracle, just some smart code and good UI.


  1. Until then, I use vertical tabs in Firefox. Highly recommended especially when you have a wide monitor.

  2. That is really really nice. (I had seen a hierarchical tab extension on the topbar, but this one is quite a lot better.)

  3. Two clicks to close a tab group, but an improvement for sure...

  4. I'm actually working on a next-generation tabs project at Mozilla, that should address some of these issues. Ultimately we hope to be able to address them all.

    Speaking of which, we're looking for another JavaScript dev... you interested?

  5. I used an extension in Firefox that gave tabs as a tree view. It worked well, but was very buggy indeed.

  6. Anonymous2:11 PM

    I don't understand why you would want a 100 tabs open at a time. You are like a hoarder cept its tabs instead of random junk.

  7. yeah total hoarder. the only thing harder than not having 100 tabs open is being mentally organized enough not to need them open. :)

  8. Anonymous3:47 PM

    I have a 13" macbook so my vertical resolution is very very limited. As a result I use Firefox (and now maybe Safari) with all the chrome 'hidden' unless I want to enter a URL with command L. This means I rarely have multiple tabs open because I want that clean, chromeless window into the inner tubes (something I might have harassed you about before).

    Also, after actually having read your entire post I am thinking you are looking in the wrong direction. Too many should's and ought to's in my opinion. Yes your usage scenarios do make sense, but so do millions of other usage scenarios by millions of other users. How is a browser going to be smart enough to handle all that variation?

    Ultimately, I don't think it will be about tab management at all. In fact I think they are kind of stupid and ugly. Imagine having a tab bar for all your programs in OSX... taking up space, looking ugly, etc. At least with cmd-tab it is only visible _if_ you need it and even invisible when you are going back and for from two apps.

    Tabs were required because we wanted to "do more" within the browser, because shuffling between windows was a pain in the ass. Now, I think it's all about the sites themselves "doing more" because shuffling between tabs is a pain in the ass. Google services is really bad about this. They're default behavior is to open new tabs when you want to access the calendar or docs from gmail. Even if it's something trivial like adding an entry to your calendar. Opening a new tab should be the last resort instead of the first option.

  9. I mean maybe Google's "Fast flip" or something like snap.com could eliminate the need to open 10 tabs to find information on the web, but I don't see it happening that soon.

    Domains are very disconnected right now...so we use tabs, which are too heavy.

    I agree, if you actually only have 4 tasks to do, put them in 4 tabs and be done. The problem is the 4 tasks become 100 tabs rather quickly.

  10. Anonymous5:02 PM

    Ooh.. LOL @ fast flip. I swear Google's 'lets make a thousand internet products and see which float' philosophy is idiotic.

    I don't know, maybe a programmer's life is different.. But I still have NO IDEA 4 tabs turns into 100.