Tabbed Whatevering

A bit of computer-related rambling here. Feel free to skip it if it’s not interesting to you.

Lately, a spate of web browsers have started including a feature called “Tabbed Browsing.” The way tabbed browsing works is that each window can have an arbitrary number of tabs, each of which is a different web page. The better implementations of this feature also allow you to bookmark tab sets, which is an enormous time saver.

For example, I have about 10 websites that I read daily. In a browser without this feature, I’d have each of those sites bookmarked, and would select each of the bookmarks sequentially, which of course requires me to wait for each page to load. In Mozilla, I’ve created a tab set bookmark called “Dailies.” When I’m ready to do a bit of reading, I just choose that bookmark, and Mozilla loads all ten sites simultaneously. As I finish reading a site, I simply close its tab, and the next site is ready to be read instantly.

There are a number of other situations where tabbed browsing is immensely useful: copying information from one page into a weblog page, clicking a hyperlink and having it load on another tab in the background so it doesn’t disturb the flow of what you’re reading, etc.

So after using tabbed browsers for several months and enjoying the utility and economy of screen space, I had an idea: why not extend tabs to other kinds of applications than web browsers? A tabbed terminal application comes immediately to mind, and news readers and email programs could probably benefit. Eclipse, a wonderful open-source IDE for Java development, already includes tabbed text editing in its bag of tricks. Even word processing, image editing, and other tasks might be made a bit more intuitive this way, as its often easier to manage multiple documents by clicking among tabs than by moving from window to window.

This would, of course, disrupt some long-used conventions, especially on the Mac, where there’s no equivalent of Multiple Document Interface — a convention many Windows programs already use and to which tabbed navigation would be infinitely superior from a usability standpoint. But the speed with which tabbed browsing has been adopted in web browsers makes me think that it would be easy for most people to grasp, and would offer significant benefits.