Why I’m Not a Fan of Tabbed Browsing

Posted September 18th, 2006 by kyle

In the earlier days of Windows, there was only SDI (single-document-interface) and MDI (multiple-document interface). An SDI application, as its name implies, displays only one document or view. Examples of this are Explorer, Internet Explorer (prior to v7), Notepad, and Paint. Many SDI applications allow multiple instances to be opened with a different document in each. Each instance is a separate process with a single top-level window and (in Windows 95 and later) Taskbar item and can be switched between via Alt+Tab/Alt+Shift+Tab or by clicking on its Taskbar icon.

An MDI application supports multiple documents open in the same top-level window/process, and the documents are switched between via F6/Shift+F6 or the application’s Window menu. The TDI (tabbed document interface) used by tabbed browsers provide what is essentially another form of MDI, with a tab control in the application window for switching between documents (rather than a Window menu) and usually using Ctrl+Tab/Ctrl+Shift+Tab to switch via the keyboard. Ctrl+Tab is definitely easily to type than F6, but Ctrl+Tab in earlier versions of IE was used to move between frames in a framed web page, so now F6 must be used for that when tabs are enabled.

For many years, Microsoft advocated and used MDI for applications that could open multiple documents. I believe Office used this until Office 2000, when MSDI (multiple single-document interface) was introduced, which is a sort of blend of SDI and MDI designs. With multiple Word documents open in Word 2000+, there is only one process and a top-level window for each document. Alt+Tab can be used to switch between Word documents and other applications, but the Window menu is also still available in Word for switching documents (as well as Ctrl+F6).

I balked at this change at first, but I have come to prefer it. MSDI reduces the separation between applications and encourages you to think in terms of the various documents you’re working with instead. A document-centric approach really does make more sense than an application-centric one. With MDI/tabbed browsers, I have to make a mental context switch when moving between applications (Alt+Tab) vs. switching between documents within an application (Ctrl+Tab or F6), and closing windows works differently as well (Ctrl+W or Ctrl+F4 vs. Alt+F4). I constantly find myself accidentally Alt+Tabbing, then having to Alt+Tab back and Ctrl+Tabbing to switch between browser windows. It’s just simpler to have one way to switch. I tried tabbed browsing one more time with IE7 but still was not satisfied with the experience.

Other disadvantages of a tabbed interface are that you can’t arrange the contents of two tabs side-by-side, a modal dialog blocks access to other tabs while it is displayed, and each application tends to implement their tabbed interface slightly differently (for instance, Firefox puts the close button on the far right by default, while IE puts one on each tab; Firefox Ctrl+Tab ordering is currently strictly positional, but IE supports an MRU ordering, etc.).

About the only advantage I can see to tabbed browsing is grouping pages related to different activities (for instance, two different browser windows, one for researching a product comparison and the other for looking up info for a trip, each with multiple tabs). But even in that case, I find it difficult to keep the two cleanly grouped anyway.

There still are times where accessing all windows of a given application can be helpful, and Windows XP aids this by grouping similar taskbar buttons when many top-level windows are open (so all IE windows consume only one taskbar entry, another for all Word documents, etc.). Clicking on the Taskbar button displays a pop-up menu of that application’s windows, and clicking on a menu item activates it. This is actually a little more productive than clicking on a single browser taskbar entry, then looking up at the browser tab control to choose which page within it to view. This functionality is also accessible from the keyboard via Windows+Tab/Windows+Shift+Tab, Enter/Space to show the menu, Arrows to select, and Enter to activate, although it’s probably best to pick either Alt+Tab or Win+Tab and use one method habitually.

I was really hopeful that Microsoft would make some improvements in this area with Windows Vista (for instance, by making Alt+Tab able to group documents by application and more navigable with the keyboard), but instead things appear to have taken a step backward — Alt+Tab (now called Windows Flip) hasn’t changed much (it does provide thumbnails of the window instead of the application icon [which actually seems to make it more difficult to identify apps] and is still just an ungrouped list of windows, but at least you can navigate it with arrow keys), and Windows+Tab now performs Windows Flip 3D, which is basically just a glitzy version of Alt+Tab functionality, again with no grouping of applications.

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6 Comments on “Why I’m Not a Fan of Tabbed Browsing”

  1. Stephen R. Diamond Says:

    I understand the main advantage to tabbed browsing is that multiple pages can be open without undue RAM allocation.

  2. kyle Says:

    Maybe (although I’ve seen claims that Firefox is a memory hog while Opera runs fairly light). RAM is cheap enough these days that I’d rather buy more than change my Windows usage habits. But I’ve never run into RAM shortages with lots of IE windows open (2 Gigs RAM on Windows XP SP2).

  3. Kinook Software Blog » Blog Archive » IE7 Already Losing Its Luster Says:

    [...] One thing I like to do with my apps is minimize the screen real estate consumed by menus and toolbars, and IE7 seemed to make improvements in this area. But after trying again and giving up on tabbed browsing and finding more efficient search methods, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to use IE7, and it turns out that IE6 is actually more space efficient anyway. [...]

  4. Ferdi Says:

    I also much prefer to open seperate instances of IE. Direct acces from the task bar allows much easier use when switching between various applications and multiple browser windows. I fail to see the advantages of tabbed browing. It just adds an axtra step.

    Anyway… Has anyone found a way around the problem that IE7 has introduced when you use it with tabs switched of? What I’m talking about is the fact that if you have multiple browser windows open and you click on a link in lets say an email, all these IE instances are then brought to the front.

    When you close the window that was launched by clicking the link, you would obviously want to see the window where you clicked this link, and not an unrelated browser window which may have previously minimized and has now all of a sudden been brought to the front. This to me isn’t a feature but a bug. I’m 99% sure that ie6 didn’t behave this way.

    Any suggestions anyone? Thanks

  5. kyle Says:

    I don’t recall experiencing that behavior when I looked at IE7, but thankfully I prevented Windows Update from foisting it on me and still merrily use IE6.

  6. Kinook Software Blog » Blog Archive » LaunchAssist: Improving Application Launchers Everywhere Says:

    [...] Bonus feature: when launching URLs, if Shift is held down, LaunchAssist attempts to open the URL in a new browser window (for URLs, if Shift is not held down, LaunchAssist is bypassed). This is useful to me since I still use the venerable IE 6 (since I disdain tabbed browsers), configured to reuse windows when launching shortcuts, but sometimes I do want to open a new window instead. It works by finding the application associated with .html and launching it directly, which should work with most browsers. Share and Enjoy:These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. [...]