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Humanized > Weblog: Firefox 2.0: Tabs Gone Wrong
Tabs are better than windows because they don't conceal as much information.

5 Apr 2007

Firefox 2.0: Tabs Gone Wrong


Firefox introduced tabbed-browsing to the masses. And it was good. It took Microsoft years to catch-up.

Why are tabs good? Frankly, because the standard windowing model is bad. It’s much easier to scan through a horizontal list of tab names then it is to wade through alt-tab’s textless, iconic grid. One of the benefits of tabs is that they are always linearly arranged in a fixed order. To find your tab, you simply have to run your eyes from left to right; once you get to the end, you’re done. With windows, however, your eyes have to rove around the screen looking for the one you want and you might never find it because windows can hide behind other windows. And unlike tabs, unless you’re very careful, windows will not stay in a consistent place because they are constantly being shuffled to accommodate limited screen real-estate. The net result is that finding a particular window is like playing whack-a-mole blind-folded, whilst finding a particular tab is like fishing for fish in a barrel with dynamite.

In short, tabs are better than windows because they don’t conceal as much information.*

In Firefox 2.0 a “feature” was introduced that dealt with the edge-case where there were many tabs in a new way. It takes a giant step backward by actively concealing information.

Previously, as the number of tabs grew, each one’s size would shrink. Eventually, there would be so many tabs that you couldn’t even read their titles. But, while this clearly wasn’t ideal and led to a certain amount of hunting for tabs, you at least always knew roughly where it was: “an inch or so from the right side of the window”. Now, however, the tabs remain mostly readable but can scroll off-screen.

Firefox 2.0 style tabs
To access off-screen tabs you need to click on the little arrows on the left or right of the tab bar. For allowing a only a subset of the tabs to be readable at a time, a lot has been sacrificed:

  1. Scanning your eyes across the tab-bar no longer guarantees you’ll see all of the tabs — this has tripped me up a number of times: I’ve ended up with 3 or 4 identical because I didn’t realize that I already had the tab open;
  2. You can no longer associate a tab-bar location with a certain tab because they shift around every time you scroll — the interface doesn’t feel stable anymore;
  3. Scrolling through tabs is quite slow — I find that it is often the case that opening a new tab is faster then finding the old one.

As is often the case, the “feature” made things worse. Firefox 2.0 tabs are slower and harder to use than Firefox 1.0 tabs. Adding new mechanisms to an interface should always be approached carefully, otherwise they’ll end up cluttering the interface and detracting from the design. To quote Khoi Vinh of the NY Times, “let tabs be tabs.”

I want my simple tabs back. They weren’t perfect, but at least they didn’t make me play guess-where-I-am.


Although you can’t make the new-style tabs go away, you can make them work like the old-style tabs for more of the time. To do so:

  1. Open a new firefox tab.
  2. Type “about:config” into the address bar
  3. Type “tab” into the filter field.
  4. Change the settings of both “” and “” to 5
  5. Restart Firefox.

* It is because windows are so bad about obscuring information that getting a large screen will increase your productivity by 5-10%. Think about it, 5-10% of the time you spend on your computer is wasted because you’re fiddling with windows.** And when information is visually hidden, and not immediately accessible, the cognitive burden of remembering what it is and how to get to it is significantly increased.** It would be interesting to see the effect of large screens on productivity when restricted to using tabs. My guess is that when using only tabs, a large screen would still increase productivity but not as much as in the case with windows.

by Aza Raskin