It seems the general reaction to Apple pulling out their Safari 4 Beta “tabs on top” feature has been generally positive. The sentiment seems to indicate the feature to be so inferior to the workaday solution of having tabs below the address-bar, that tabs-on-top shouldn’t even be optional for those of use who understand their usability benefits.
I’m writing this post today, to inform you that the problem wasn’t tabs-on-top. The problem was Apples half-assed implementation of tabs-on-top.
In a misguided attempt at being innovative, Apple had decided to build their own take on the tabs (as can be seen in this screenshot). Tab-widths resized for every new tab you opened, trying to use the maximum available realestate (causing quite the flutter when opening tabs). The left-most tab had the close button on it, while the second-most did not (confusing the close tab with close window behavior). Probably most ridiculously, tabs had a little strip on the right side that looked like it would resize the tab window. This was, in fact, the “move only the tab” drag area. Dragging the tab, ironically, dragged the whole window.
For the analytical mind, you might — with the help of drugs — pick up on the idea that each Safari 4 tab was its own window, and that when you combined one window with another, they’d share the titlebar, dividing this new world equally between them. So a tabbed Safari 4 window could simply be thought of, as a group of Safari 4 windows. A noble goal, and no doubt why Apple tried all those oddball UI decisions. Forgivable, because this was a beta version. How much more odd it was, that the feature was pulled altogether when the final version of Safari 4 was released just a few days ago. To re-iterate, tabs-on-top is not even optional.
This really is a pity, and to explain why, please take a look at the current default Safari 4 configuration:
Behold, Apples flagship browser, in all its tab-less glory. Wait, no tabs? That’s right, until you open a tab, you won’t see the tab-bar (unless you change the default settings). How would your mom discover tabs in Safari 4? That’s right, she wouldn’t.
Tabs on top have the benefit of being supremely visible. They are, after all, right at the top. Windows users have the added benefit of having them be right at the top of a maximized window, requiring you to only bump your mouse towards the edge of the screen to select it. Easy peasy. Now all that will be lost. Like tabs in the rain.
It’s not that Safaris current tabs are bad, once the tab-bar is there:
… it’s just that the discoverability is somewhat lower than tabs-on-top.
As an added benefit of tabs on top, you’d get some extra vertical real estate, because the titlebar would be nuked in favor of the title only having to stick to each tab. With tabs below, you have the title shown twice. Which is redundant of course.
So Safari 4 ditched the tabs on top. So what, go back to Google Chrome where you came from? Sure, but not before I poke fun at the visionaries at Apple for chickening out on a good idea. Tabs on top could’ve worked:
Okay so it could also have worked even better than the above mockup, but still, it’s not really rocket science. Invert the tab-bar instead of inventing some high-fantasy “group of windows” metaphor. Each tab has a fixed width (until you have to deal with overflow), and dragging the tab drags the tab (for sorting purposes). Pulling the visible chrome before or after tabs, or even below the tab around the addressbar here and there would drag the entire window. The tab close button (now visible all the time) looks like a close button and not like the Apple stoplight (because it closes the tab, not the window).
There. Tabs like they’ve been done since BeOS.