Blog Post

Hey Apple, Don’t Be So Quick to Ditch Safari’s Tabs On Top

whatsnew-tabs-20090217

The Safari 4 beta was released a mere two weeks ago, and I sometimes feel as if the battle over title-bar tabs may already be over. The heavy hitters have weighed in, and it’s not looking good.

There’s MacDailyNews:

When the very first thing we did after the first day with Safari 4 Public Beta was to fire up the Terminal to nuke the poorly-thought-out tabs, restoring them back under the Bookmarks Bar where they belong… then Apple has a problem.

The MacObserver:

Next, because the tabs are placed on the top of the window, the user is now at a loss on where to drag the main window. Safari 4 fails.

Walt Mossberg:

Apple’s worst decision was to move the tabs that represent open pages to the very top edge of the browser screen, above all the toolbars and menus,

And Daring Fireball:

But the problems with this new tab layout are significant.

Those last three articles go into much depth, so don’t take my pull quotes as the whole story. They go into a lot of detail (too much, in my opinion) as to why Tabs on Top — and other parts of the new Safari UI — are a failure. They discuss the purpose of the Mac’s UI, the consistency, user interaction, colors, background, click-through, click targets, user expectation, and on and on.

I don’t discount the above, in that some consideration has to be accorded to all those things, but they write as if they’re the elected Guardians of the GUI. As if Apple (s aapl) doesn’t have anyone on staff who cares about the GUI any more. Like Apple somehow lost those people and they went on to become tech columnists or bloggers.

So, while I don’t want to be the one to disagree with such venerable parties, I will.

First, I admit that as a 1.0 version of the interface, some tweaks are necessary to Tabs on Top, but I feel the feature itself is wonderful, and would hate to see it go. Below are some of the high-level thoughts I keep reading, and my comments on them.

Apple got this idea from Chrome

Can we dispense with this right now? What Chrome did was move the tab bar above the Address bar. I think that’s a better place for it, but the fact is the tab bar remains.

This was not a particularly radical move. All it did, in my opinion, was show that the tab bar as we know it was not a particularly good implementation of tabs in the first place. Seems like every time some new feature was added to a browser a new “bar” was added; in the case of the tab bar it was added to the wrong spot.

The title bar now has multiple functions

So what? The title bar already has multiple functions. It’s used, when clicking on the right spot, to Close, Minimize, or Maximize the window. And it serves as the world’s largest grab handle to move a window.

Of course, the title bar also told you what “document” or “page” you were in, but it still does this. Where were all these UI folks when tabs were first implemented, decrying the fact that with a tab bar we had the title in two places? That seems at least as egregious as some of the complaints I see now.

In my view, when using tabs, the title bar becomes the appendix of the browser UI, especially on the Mac where even identifying the app you’re running is unnecessary, since it’s right there, in bold, on the menu bar.

You have to careful where you click to move a window

I think this one is overblown. What about being careful when you click to use the three title buttons mentioned above? Why isn’t anyone railing that, for example, it’s a small target to hit for minimizing a window?

A million arguments may be given for this, but I submit that it’s primarily because what we’re used to we don’t think much about any more, and what we’re not used to we complain about as if we can’t ever learn.

Bottom line is the area of the new title bar that will move the window is still large; you could blindfold me and I’d likely hit it eight out of ten times. Since I don’t browse blindfolded, it’s a no-brainer to reach up and grab a correct spot to move the entire window. In fact, I believe Apple can (and should) make that area a little bit smaller.

Apple wanted to save space, but the few pixels aren’t worth it

Frankly, the extra line is nice on my 800 pixel monitor. But beyond that, as mentioned above, when a new feature is added to a browser it seems a new “bar” is added. When was the last time someone actually removed one (no, turning one off — and forgoing the feature — doesn’t count)? For that reason alone I applaud Apple’s effort.

Apple uses a different font on the title bar, it’s a UI inconsistency

There are plenty of “UI inconsistency” arguments being made, and yet the UI has always been evolving and growing. There has rarely (ever?) been a Mac OS release that didn’t likely have at least one UI element in transition. Compromise and change are the hallmarks of today’s operating systems.

Had Apple stayed with the same title bar font, wouldn’t people be complaining that the font was too big to show enough of the title? Seems a logical choice that when you’re going to display more info you might want to re-think the font.

Seriously, the claim that maybe Apple should have avoided tabs in the title bar because the title bar font currently in use wasn’t optimal is silly. If the font isn’t optimal, change it. They did. Wisely. And it’s not as if they went with Comic Sans; they stayed in the same font family.

And many more

I can’t cover all the points here. Read the above linked articles and you’ll see numerous other arguments.

These are thoughtful posts from people I respect, yet I can’t help but think their belief that Apple has lost their GUI way, while they somehow know what’s really happening, is like the guy in the fast lane on the highway who won’t go faster than the speed limit. These self-appointed Keepers of the Speed may not be wrong, but they’re not right either. Ultimately, they simply slow things down.

What We Miss With Tabs on Top

I’m having a hard time buying into the arguments above, especially in the sense that I think they’re overkill for the vast majority of Apple’s users base (they’re not all tech blog readers, you know). Take, for example, the different gradient ranges to differentiate between active/inactive tabs within active/inactive windows. These new gradients were needed, but if you tell me 95 percent of Mac users are going to notice or care — that it’s anything more than just geek trivia — well, I respectfully disagree.

When I first used Tabs on Top, like most users the first thing I noticed is what I was missing:

  • I couldn’t double-click the tab bar to open a new tab.
  • I frequently went to drag a tab and dragged the window instead.

The former is a muscle-memory thing to use a different method. I usually used Command-T, and now basically had to remember to use it all the time. A feature I used was gone. Bummer.

The latter is where I say that Apple should actually reduce the amount of “grab handle” area for the title bar. It’s difficult to miss. When you want to drag the window just mouse up to the middle of any text on the title bar and you’ll be fine. It’s generally no harder than (and usually easier) than mousing up to a menu, so the talk about it being a lot harder to drag a window seems exaggerated.

No, what we lost was a good target to grab and drag a tab; the new one Apple provides is too small. Given that it’s a triangle, I’d say it’s even a bit harder to hit than a close box. In my opinion Apple could make it a small rectangle (maybe three times bigger than what we have now). That would provide a more reasonable target then the close, minimize, etc. buttons, while at the same time the advice for grabbing the title bar to move a window remains valid.

Why I like Tabs on Top

After getting into the habit of opening new tabs via Command-T (or the plus sign), and after having moved the window numerous times when all I wanted to do was move a tab (and, yes, I think there was cursing involved), but learning to avoid that, a few nice things occurred to me:

  • I like the extra line on my 1280 x 800 monitor. For someone who turns off the status bar for an extra line, getting yet another line by re-purposing the antiquated (for a browser) title bar makes more and more sense to me.
  • The interface is cleaner. My love for Safari is partially because I like how clean the interface is. As I said above, I applaud Apple for actually removing a bar.
  • What we “lost” in the process is just an adjustment to a different and, in my opinion, ultimately better way of doing things.
  • I can actually use the title bar to see, and control, all my windows/pages/tabs. I don’t have to use multiple bars. Imagine that.

I’ll tell you what else occurred to me. If Tabs had originally been implemented using the title bar (i.e., if it hadn’t been “obvious” that a new feature required a new bar), it would have seemed reasonable, and I don’t think there’d have been the hoot and hollering we have now. I’m not sure Apple didn’t just move tabs to where they should have been all along.

After less than two weeks, a browser window with a separate tab bar looks rather pointless and wasteful to me.

Conclusions

As I said, there are tweaks to the Tabs on Top UI that I think are needed. Making the drag area bigger is one. Clearly setting apart the three window buttons on the left from the first tab is another. Heck, one could even imagine a scenario where Command-clicking the title bar will always drag a tab, which would give an even bigger target for those who want it.

But I am hopeful that, after the consideration Apple must have made in making this change, that they will not be too hasty in dumping it in the face of all the flack they’re getting.

I disagree with those that say simply putting in a preference for one way or the other is the answer. That’s fine for smaller things, but this is big. I don’t want Safari development slowed down because Apple must regress two interfaces for every new release. Browser development is heating up across the board and, unlike Google, Apple cares about the Mac and Windows at the same time, so they should not have the albatross of new and legacy interfaces around their neck.

Finally, does it not occur to anyone that we had to learn a lot of new things in order to use a tab bar in the first place? We survived, didn’t we? Tabs is no longer some radical new interface, it’s mainstream. Chrome may have shown the tab bar was in the wrong place, but I think Apple’s showing we don’t really need it at all.

55 Responses to “Hey Apple, Don’t Be So Quick to Ditch Safari’s Tabs On Top”

  1. I’ve always wanted the tabs to be on top of the Safari browser window. From day one it seemed obvious to me that the title bar was a big waste of space which could be put to much better use; and now it has been. Imo Google’s Chrome has implemented its tabs much better than Safari 4. My gripe with Safari’s tabs is the fact that in order to close multiple tabs, I find myself chasing the close tab button across the title bar as they change size. Google’s Chrome, however, allows the user to close multiple tabs without having to move the mouse cursor as the tabs resize conveniently to the point at which my cursor closed the last tab.

    I’ve noticed lots of people using Terminal commands to restore Safari’s functionality to their preferred former state. There’s also a menu bar implementation of this feature which can be installed, which can be found here: http://pointum.com/safari-tweaks.html.
    Perhaps a good solution would be for Apple to build this feature into their future releases, then everyone can have their cake and eat it.

    It’s a hot debate; there are lots of different opinions on this matter. The interesting thing is going to be how Apple receive the users’ feedback and what changes they make in future Safari releases.

  2. Yes.

    I gave Walt a hard time about his blog on Safari 4.0 in A reply to his blog:

    “Except for the noticing the speed, I totally disagree with this assessment of of Safari 4.0. Every one of the interface/feature changes, including moving tabs to the top, is a huge improvement. Seems like Walt simply surfed the web for public opinion, and wrote his column based on initial impressions by people who are resistant to change. Tabs on top converts the useless title bar space into functional space.

    Posted by doug aghassi at March 5th, 2009 at 11:40 am ”

    I think it hit a note with him, because he hit back:

    I’m perfectly happy to have folks disagree with my opinions, but Doug Aghassi is way out of line when he writes: “Seems like Walt simply surfed the web for public opinion, and wrote his column based on initial impressions by people who are resistant to change.”

    That suggests that I lied when I explained that I had tested the product extensively and drawn my conclusions from those tests. I was naturally aware of some of what was being said online — even mentioned it. But anyone familiar with my columns over the years knows that I test everything and then offer my views. Just because somebody disagrees with those views doesn’t give him or her the right to impugn my ethics.

    Bulletin to Doug: it’s possible for two people to carefully examine a set of facts, or a design decision, and come to different conclusions. And the other side isn’t lazy or “resistant to change,” just because you disagree.

    Posted by Walt Mossberg at March 7th, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    pretty funny stuff. I was wrong about stating that I loved all the new interface changes, there are 2 features that I do not like, so I returned them to their previous Safari 3.1 way: 1. Blue progress bar and 2. I put the stop/reload button back next to the forward/back buttons.

    However, I absolutely love tabs on top, regardless of screen-size. I have always thought a web-browser’s Title Bar is a huge waste of pixels.

  3. Bravo! Great post. I completely agree with you, and at the risk of being labeled an Apple apologizing fanboi, I think the company from Cupertino nailed the ideal web browser UI experience with Safari 4. I absolutely love having the tabs on top. IMO, it’s where it makes SENSE to have tabs. I understand that it might take a bit to get used to, but ‘m happy for the extra space and think that Safari looks cleaner than ever.

    The one thing that caused me to stumble at first is the position of the stop/reload button. But now that I’m used to it, it’s all good. I could see moving it off of the address bar right in between it and the search bar.

    Anyway, I am a big fan of Safari 4- it’s speed and the interface.

  4. I like the tabs on top, even though it took some getting used to at first. I am wondering why Apple doesn’t simply make everyone happy and allow an option that the user can click that places the tabs on top, or tabs on bottom (original position). This idea could be extended to so many of the other options that Safari has. It could become the world’s most flexible browser. Personally, I think the worst change in Safari 4 was the omission of the Snapback for regular browsing (not talking about the Google Search here). Some of the features I missed (progress bar, reload/stop button) were able to be retrieved with some terminal commands that I found here: http://www.macworld.com/article/139053/2009/02/safari4prefs.html.

  5. Ronald Elliott

    I agree completely. Apple has been inovating UI’s since they started creating Mac OS. I love tabs being on top, doesn’t junk up the space that should be used for displaying a page and I switched from firefox for this very reason.

  6. michael B kendall

    LOVING the tabs at top. I was slightly interested in Safari 4, but as soon as I saw that innovation I jumped on it making it the default browser on both my Mac and Win machines (Saf 3 already was, mind you, purely for speed). I must admit it took me the best part of a minute to figure out all the intricacies of the new system, but it was worth it.

    I’d like to see larger grab areas for tabs, but how simple to put them in the preferences? Select large or small grab area as suits you- larger ones might not be so good for forty-tab types like me.

    Tabs down the side can’t be far away, theres far more space there, especially on widescreens, but this will do for now, I love it.

    If Apple are going to chicken out, at least make it an option to keep them up top.

  7. Paulius

    I don’t like tabs on top. I’m Tablet user and these tabs are to sensitive to clicks and drags. I also don’t like how everything is compressed in this small space now, I want old way.

  8. I like the new tabs. I like the extra line, and I also like that you can actually read the text in them; the old ones were so dark it was very difficult to make out the tabs in an active window.

    I don’t like having the stop/refresh button at the right hand end of the address field rather than next to the back/forward controls as before.

  9. I agree! they just seem to belong up there, and the people who just hacked them away first thing are to uptight. sure it’s BETA and everything isn’t 100% perfect yet, but it’s obvious that it’s going in the right direction, if not just about there already.

    APPLE please don’t give in to the complainers! move forward!

    I’m sure there where plenty who said the keyboard should be in the front of a laptop, before Apple made it in the back. (I’m 99% sure it was first seen on Apple) I admire companies like Apple and Google who are willing to push the norm.

  10. Michael Logue

    I like the Tabs on top. It seems that the people who don’t like them there are fine with using the terminal to restore them to their original place. But “What about the children?” We have to make it easy for the people who either have never used tabs or are uncomfortable with using the terminal. But those are precisely the people who couldn’t care less where the tabs are. OK, put in a preference for the whiners. Do you think that will shut them up? My only two minor gripes are: 1) that in order to get back the blue progress bar you give up the little reload arrow and the rotating gear (while loading) that changes to an X if you hover the mouse over it, at the right end of the address field; and 2) I would have liked the width of the tabs to be like the original tabs. When I close several tabs, it is annoying to have the position of the close box change position so drastically, but I am not sure that is possible. All GUI’s involve trade-offs. I applaud Apple in trying different looks. Take a deep breath, after all, guys it is a beta.

  11. jean-paul

    Mmm, for what it’s worth: have been an all-day mac user for more than 20 years, and Safari user from day one. i LOVE tabs at the top. i have read Gruber and all writing in depth why they hate them, and i love them anyway. Gruber (Daring Fireball is my home page) is great, but he did not miss either the disappearance of Snapback, writing he never used it and did not know anybody who did: well, Mister Favourite Blogger, this is my only gripe with the new Safari. i used Snapback all the time—now, i have to go fish my source page by clicking the tiny black left triangle… yuck. So, tabs at the top forever and Snapback back for me please!

  12. cjf,

    “Screen real estate? Give me a break. We all work on enormous screens these days.”

    I have no idea where you got that idea. Laptops are overtaking desktops in sales. Look at $1,500 or less laptops and notice the screen. Whether physically 13, 14 or even 15 inches, the resolution is overwhelmingly 1280 x 800.

    And then there’s this little thing called a netbook. Millions of those have been sold, and they only have 600 pixels vertical resolution.

    Finally, the trend in mainstream laptops is to move to a 16:9 screen from 16:10. That 1280 x 800 resolution will change to only 768 pixels vertically.

    It’s nice to imagine we all have a monster resolution on our laptops or desktops, but that’s simply not the case.

    Tabs vertically might be one solution, but it doesn’t reclaim the “wasted” space of the title bar, which in a browser seems under-utilized.

  13. It took me about a week to get used to the tabs on top – primarily shifting my eyes to the title/tab bar now when I shifted my spaces to my safari space.

    I agree completely – tabs are like a compromise between SDI and MDI application design, and tabs on top just really really makes sense. I’d like to see this carried over through other applications too.

  14. Jayd,

    “Are they end users? Yes. Is it an end user application? Yes. Then they are ‘Guardians of the GUI.’”

    As I said, the average end user does not know nor care, for example, the various shades of gray used in the new UI.

    The Guardians title was applied to those who would reject the feature based on how it seems (to them) to violates UI guidelines. As if somehow Apple had forgotten those guidelines, or lost the expertise, or the guidelines themselves do not frequently evolve and change.

    No, I don’t believe they are the “Guardians of the GUI”. I’m not sure the GUI even has a “guardian”, but if it did it would be at Apple.

  15. I absolutely hate the tabs on top. There are lots of viable alternatives to having a row of tabs below the bookmark/toolbar (e.g. see Omniweb’s visual tab drawer), but this is not one of them.

    That aside, it is simply a solution to a problem that did not exist. Screen real estate? Give me a break. We all work on enormous screens these days. If that was the real issue, they might have shifted them to vertical tabs, since screens are wider than they are tall.

    All that “tabs on top” did was to make the interface look slightly more cluttered than before. The one thing Safari did have relative to its competitors was a nice, clean interface.

    Leave the tabs where they were. They were not broken. Do not “fix” it.

    • No, we do *not* all work on enormous screens these days. My main machine is my 17″ laptop and I’m always running out of room. Just because YOU don’t fully utilize your screen space doesn’t mean that none of us do.

      Tabs on top was BY FAR my favorite feature of Safari 4 and I’m pissed as hell that they’re gone. I actually found this post trying to figure out if there’s a hack to turn them BACK ON.

  16. but they write as if they’re the elected Guardians of the GUI.

    Are they end users? Yes. Is it an end user application? Yes. Then they are ‘Guardians of the GUI.’ If enough users, like them, hate it and find it unusable, then it’s failed. End of story.

  17. Vincent,

    “When multiple tabs are open then the active tabs are larger than inactive ones”

    I don’t follow you here. Safari divides the title bar so each tab is the same size. I don’t see a change in tab size between when it’s active or inactive.

  18. I personally love having the tabs at the top. It took a bit to get used, like a few hours, but its easy. I run safari 4 beta on PC and mac, and absolutely love it. Tabs stay where they are!

  19. Great article, Tom: I’ve come to love having tabs on top, even if it took a moment of manual adaptation; I agree, competing browsers, from which I’ve switched because of this tabs’ replacement, now seem old and clunky for their individualized and lower tab bar. I hope the change stays.

  20. Vincent Birlouez

    I don’t like tabs on top for the following reasons:
    – usability wise your eyes have to go higher up to see what are the open tabs (for me it means going up the bookmark bar that I use a lot and the URL address)
    – When multiple tabs are open then the active tabs are larger than inactive ones, this is annoying for quick navigation

    And in the end we only save on line of real estate. So the benefits are not great.

  21. DTNick,

    “Having to dodge so many obstacles (close buttons, drag thumbs) when trying to move the window is a little bit of a hassle.”

    Interesting. I really don’t have an issue grabbing the title bar to move the WINDOW. The items you mention are on the edge of a tab; I shoot for the middle and don’t think I’ve ever missed (it’s a pretty big target). The vast majority of title bar space is still used for the purpose of moving the window, so it’s just not an issue with me.

    It’s a much bigger adjustment to grab and move a TAB, the target of which shrunk considerably in the new UI.

  22. jehrler

    Oh, one other great feature of tabs on top is that if you use gmail or google reader you can use your title bars as notifiers when there is new mail, new rss items.

    Gmail Notifier is no longer needed on my system.

  23. jehrler

    One great tip to avoid accidentally closing a tab is to use Glims with its favicons in the tab option.

    The favicons add info about each tab *and* show you exactly where the close box is. Thus, you can click on a tab without any thought and *know* that you won’t be closing it.

    Apple really should incorporate this idea into Safari.

  24. I have to disagree, and think that the tabs should be under, but maybe that because that is the way that I am used to it…

    I also agree a lack of progress bar and easy stop button are really missing….

  25. DTNick

    (By “close buttons” I mean the ones on each tab that appear as you mouse-over–can’t do much about the traffic signal window controls in the titlebar. See also: Gruber’s discussion of click-through in his post.)

  26. DTNick

    I like tabs on top, but I’m still pro-titlebar. Having to dodge so many obstacles (close buttons, drag thumbs) when trying to move the window is a little bit of a hassle. For me the biggest flaw in Safari 4’s UI is the lack of a proper progress indicator. Lame.

  27. I actually like having tabs in the title bar. There are a few things I would like fixed, as it is too easy to close a tab on accident at the moment and I’m not too fond of the larger size selected tabs become. Otherwise I like having the additional real estate for displaying content (that’s the point right). The title bar is often a no-man’s land of wasted space. I’d like to continue seeing it used as a tab bar.