No, Mozilla didn't create the tab, and it was Opera that popularized the concept. But is the organization now in a position to try replacing it with something better?
Insofar as Web applications have become a fact of many everyday users' lives and work, the Web browser has come to fulfill the role of a de facto operating system -- which is why browser performance is a more important topic now than ever before. Now, this most important class of application could be at a turning point in its evolution, a point where history appears to repeat itself once again.
During the era between Windows 2.0 and 3.1, a minimized window was an icon that resided in the area we now consider the "Desktop;" and even today, many Windows users' Desktops don't perform the same role as the Mac Desktop that catalyzed Windows' creation. Even Windows 7 has tweaked the concept of what a minimized window does and means; and in the Web browser context, a tab represents a similar type of functionality, giving users access to pages that aren't currently displayed.
Now that users who do business on the Web can open dozens of tabs at once, often among multiple separate windows, rows and rows of tabs are becoming less and less manageable. And while "user experience" designers such as Mozilla Labs' Aza Raskin have been hard at work endowing Firefox tabs with more functionality, as we're seeing in the latest betas of version 3.5, Raskin and many of his colleagues are now very openly pondering the question of whether they're as functional today as it seemed they would be back in 2000.
"Much of our time on the Web is now spent in Web apps. We use them in long-lived session, and when we close the tabs that house them we know we'll be coming back," Raskin blogged last month. His comments accompanied a sketch of a possible future permutation of Firefox where open tabs are grouped according to category, and stacked along the left side of the browser rather than the top.
"In a world where we have more tabs than fingers and toes, we need a better way of keeping track of them then just a horizontal strip," he continued. "Group-by-domain seems like a reasonable way to make scanning to find a tab easy. Are there other, better groupings?"
A few responses came by way of comments, but they weren't exactly complete concepts. To spur some serious development in that direction, Mozilla Labs has announced it's making the redevelopment of browser tabs the subject of this year's Summer Design Challenge.
Participants are being asked to build their ideas on any medium they have available to them, including the backs of napkins; but to submit those ideas, they need to upload a video to YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo, or other public video site, tagged with the term mozconcept. They then send links to the video to firstname.lastname@example.org. Deadline for submission is June 21 -- only five weeks away -- and winning entries will be announced on July 8. There's no obligation on Mozilla's part to use any winning ideas at all, though the organization also doesn't appear to stake any exclusive claim to any idea once it's been submitted.