August 2008

A commenter on a previous post asks,

Also, have you thought about implementing the equivalent of *ix pipes on this?

I have thought about it extensively.

Not only that, I snuck a very, very preliminary version of pipes into Ubiquity 0.1. Try this!

  1. Issue “trans hello to korean”. Hit Enter to execute it.
  2. With nothing selected, issue “email it to “.



On the morning of Weds, Aug 27, 2008, looked like this:

Are they talking about some other thing called Ubiquity, or is our little extension actually getting more attention than Obama, Hillary, McCain, the Democratic National Convention, and the iPhone?

Judging by the traffic on the Ubiquity mailing list, which exploded overnight, we’re going to need to set up some scalable infrastructure for bug reporting, feature requests, and tech support.

I’m not a publicity seeker — really all I want to do right now is start working on version 0.2 of the parser — but, wow.

Hmmmmm. Maybe I was taking the wrong approach in my previous post about tabs. Incremental improvements won’t get us to the desired state of think-about-it-wiggle-your-fingers-and-you’re-there-ness.

Let’s go back to first principles and see if there’s a different way to think about the tab problem.

When you want to get back to a tab that you have open, how do you identify the tab in your mind? I’m not asking how you would describe the tab to someone else — I’m asking, at the moment that the thought occurs to you that you want to go to a tab, what does that thought consist of?

  • Visually — “The one with a picture of a panda on it.”
  • Spatially — “The one way over on the left.”
  • By keyword — “The one about pandas reproducing in captivity.”
  • By site — “The one on the BBC news site.”
  • By activity — “The one I opened as part of my morning news reading.”
  • Some other way?

I suspect that the answer will vary between people, of course, but also that each person identifies tabs by more than one method, depending on the tab contents and how they’re being used. Do some introspection — I’m very curious to hear what you notice about your thoughts. For example, I’m the type of person who relies very much on visual and spatial cues in most things that I do. I’m very map-oriented. But I find that visual and spatial cues in the browser are too weak to be of much use to me when navigating tabs. My tabs are not consistently in the same places, and most of them look very similar because the pages I use most are almost all text and no images. So I rely mostly on the textual content of pages or the activity that they’re associated with.

Here’s an even deeper question. When you want to go somewhere, does your brain even distinguish between wanting to go to a tab that’s already open vs. wanting to go to a site? Does going to an open tab feel like a different action from opening a new page, or do you think first “I want to go to page X” and only then stop to think about whether you already have it open or not?

I’ve got no answers here, only questions.

There’s been a lot of discussion at Mozilla lately about the keyboard shortcuts for switching tabs, and how to improve them:

  1. Boriss talks about why the new behavior is being proposed for addition.
  2. Atul talks about the trade-offs between the old behavior and the proposed new behavior.
  3. Aza Raskin throws his hat into the ring with some analysis based on information density.
  4. Boriss takes inspiration from application-switching shortcuts in the operating system in looking for ways to improve the new proposed behavior.

In this post I’ll add my two cents to the discussion.

First, if you’re using Firefox, and you have several tabs open, please try holding down the ctrl key and tapping tab a few times, just to see what happens. Go ahead, try it right now. Come back to this page and keep reading after you’re done.

If your Firefox is version 3.0 or older, what should have happened is that each time you tapped tab, Firefox switched to the next tab — meaning the tab to the right in the tab bar. Let’s call this the “old tab behavior”.

If you are using the brandest-newest cutting-edgiest version of Firefox, you would see a transparent overlay with up to three thumbnail images in it, of three of your tabs. Each time you tapped tab, it would change the hilighted thumbnail, but it wouldn’t change anything in your main Firefox window until you released ctrl. Another difference is that the tabs in this mode are ordered by freshness, i.e. by how recently you looked at them, which may be different from the left-to-right ordering of the tabs at the top of the Firefox window. Let’s call this the “proposed new tab behavior”. In case you haven’t seen the very latest Firefox yet, here’s what the proposed new tab behavior looks like: