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

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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 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.

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