Massive Browsing

I am, by no means, a software developer. Every program I wrote in my CS classes in university ended in complete and utter failure (My shining moment of pride was the day my command line calculator project crashed the Sun I was working on). But I sure do use a lot of software, and I know a thing or three about user experience and interface design. That being said, I feel like I must propose a feature / feature-set that, if implemented, would win my browser-switching heart.

I am what you might call a massive browser–not so much in the fact that I am slightly doughy, but in the reality that I open more windows and tabs in my web browser than can be safely be assumed healthy. It’s partly because I know I won’t get back to an interesting piece on Design Observer if I bookmark it, partly because my work requires me to keep checking certain sources, and sometimes it’s even due to the fact that even with 4.224 million pixels worth of available real estate, I sometimes forget about some of my open windows. And frankly, I like to keep my browser open constantly.

This has, as you might imagine, fairly obvious repercussions. Finding a certain tab, opened potentially as long as a week ago, can be a nightmare. “OmniWeb”: has somewhat alleviated that pain with their thumbnail-based tabs, but in my tendency to open multiple windows, each with myriad tabs… things get lost.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that of memory. With a good 2.5GB of RAM(Random Access Memory) in my PowerMac, you’d think it wouldn’t really be an issue, right? Well, “certain”: “browsers”: have a tendency to be a bit greedy with the memory when it comes to opening a lot of tabs. A certain one (rhymes with Dr. Caligari)–when left open for more than a few hours with as few as 10 tabs–inflated to over one gigabyte in size! That’s a bit much, guys. Omniweb (my current browser du jour) has over 40 tabs open (spread among about 6 windows) right now, has been open for a few days straight, and is currently taking up around 500MB. Even still, when I’m running many other apps at the same time (including the memory sloths of the Adobe Corporation), the whole system comes to a grinding halt.

Okay, enough whinging… here is my proposal. Keep in mind, I’m no software expert, and for all I know, this may be how it’s working anyway, but can’t there be something like a tab scratch disk? Eg., most of us have heard of “virtual memory” and a chunk of our hard-drives are used by our OS for such purposes. Now, why can’t a browser take the information in the tabs, and based upon the last-usage dates of the tabs[1], copy the contents of the stagnating tabs to the aforementioned scratch file/disk from the choking memory, and then clear that space out in the RAM, so the program doesn’t turn into a hog. Sure, the access time from a HD is slower than from RAM, but compared to the 2 minutes of “potential browser crash” terror I sometimes face when switching tabs, it’s not a big deal.

Secondly… a subject I’m more well-versed in: tab interfaces. When I first saw tabs in -Phoenix- +Firefox+ on my PC and then in Safari, I was giddy. I hate on-screen clutter, but am perpetually surrounded by it. A nice, one window approach was very appealing. However, I am an extremely visual person, and a tiny blip of text[2] signifying the contents of the tab soon grew tiresome. As mentioned, “thumbnail tabs”: caused a UI geek-gasm, but when you open up multiple windows, each with over 10 tabs, it gets a bit obnoxious when it comes to finding the tab you wanted. Here’s my idea: take the thumbnails out of the drawer/sidebar, and encase them in a hideable, app-wide dock attached to a screen edge.

==Proposed Windowless Browser Tab Dock==

I’ve appropriated a few ideas from OmniWeb’s implementation, such as toggling between thumbnail and list views and an action/config menu. The dock size would be resizable via the drag area situated at the top near the aforementioned buttons (or, potentially, the dock border, depending on whether or not auto-hiding is enabled). Thumbnails, as in OmniWeb, would be rearrangeable.

So, where does this leave us? I’m not holding my breath for Mozilla to whip something out (as they’d probably want to add the functionality to all platforms, and I can’t imagine that would be much fun to pull off), although Camino could be more plausible. Apple could… but it’s kind of late in the 10.5 development game, and big features rarely come in without an OS upgrade. The realistic hope would lie with either OmniWeb (though they did just come out with 5.5 in the past few months) or one of the Safari add-ons (SafariStand, Saft, etc).

First one to effectively pull something like this off (and hey, throw in the tab memory management request, if possible)… well, you’ll win my undying love. I’ll name my cactus plant after you.

fn1. viz. if a tab hasn’t been looked at in over an hour, mark it as such.

fn2. Have you seen what happens in Firefox when you “open too many tabs”: (I think they’re implementing some sort of tab scrolling in future versions, though)