Webkit & Chrome UI Problem and Solution

Chrome's Tabs

I’m starting to like Chrome. I used it as my default browser for Windows for about a week before its various subtle bugs drove me back to Firefox (I got over my annoyance with Firefox…). Under Windows, Chrome is aesthetically challenged, but on the Mac it’s lovely. My one quibble is with the way tabs are positioned.

Chrome does put its tabs above the URL which—conceptually—belongs to the web page you’re looking at. But the tab also contains your bookmarks, which are global context.

Webkit's TabsWebkit/Safari has, without doubt, the most bizarre tab arrangement in the history of computing. It looks quite nice, but it makes no sense at all. It doesn’t work badly, and I guess if you’re going to give up on making sense conceptually, why not go for aesthetics?

I think there’s a very simple solution. Put the freaking tabs on the side of the window—like iTunes or Finder. There’s one browser that does this—Omniweb.

I actually bought a copy of Omniweb back when it was pretty much the best alternative to Internet Explorer 5.1—shortly afterwards Camino came out, followed by Firefox, followed by Safari. Omniweb is now free and webkit-based.

Omniweb's Drawer

The only problem with Omniweb is that the “tabs” are placed in a drawer, which is ugly, has the disadvantage of not visually associating the tabs with the browser view as Finder does, and—worst of all—being a freaking drawer. Even so, Omniweb probably has the best thought-out UI of any current browser. (And not just because it is the only browser to deal with “tabbed” browser windows in a sensible way.)

Aside: drawers should simply not be used for UI elements you expect to use all the time. I’d go so far as to say that Mac OS X would be better off without drawers in the first place. I can’t think of an application which uses a drawer that wouldn’t be better served by simply integrating the same stuff into the parent window. (Pathfinder’s pathological use of drawers is the main reason I can’t bear using it.)

Finder's sidebarHere’s Finder. This is how to do browser tabs. (It’s a shame Finder doesn’t actually dynamically insert open windows in its side menu—it would fix about 75% of what’s wrong with it.)

Tabs are, in general, a stupid idea. They waste vertical real estate (which is more valuable than horizontal, especially on today’s widescreens), and they do so inefficiently (since titles are wide the squat) so you frequently can’t see all your tabs. They’re really only useful in cases where they let you pick from between a small number of options (e.g. selecting views and palettes in Photoshop or Unity)—cases where a side panel would be massive overkill. This is why a lot of more complex programs have stopped using tabbed dialogs for their preferences.

Here endeth the lesson.

  • Sean Case

    I don’t use tabs at home. Instead, I have my browser windows tall and thin, and use “open in new window” and “open behind” a lot—I have them mapped to mouse chords.

    Apparently I’m the only person in the world who does this.

  • Yes, I think you’re quite mad… I used to do something similar before tabbed browsers, but now I live in tabbed browser windows. I do find that the tabs behave abominably once their width exceeds that of the window — but no worse than overlapping windows… Good grief!

  • Couple of things:

    1/ PathFinder 5.5x doesn’t use drawers that way anymore… at least not under Snow Leopard. Drawers are now used for ‘Inspected elements or for the Terminal.

    2/ If you reeeeeeeally want a sidebar in Safari then check out SafariStand… It opens resizeable mini browser windows in a *sidebar* within Safari / WebKit.

    When I’m done I usually bookmark ‘Tab Groups’.. I kind of miss Omniweb’s ‘Workspaces’ so I use SafariStand’s ‘Bookmark Shelf’ feature for that workflow.

    -Drunken Economist
    http://mindtaker.blogspot.com/
    http://twitter.com/drunk_economist

  • Glad to hear Pathfinder has given up its drawer addiction!