Outdated material; included only for historical reference
I admit that I was a little slow to appreciate the attraction of tabbed browsers. At least part of the reason for that is that Mozilla pages don't explain tabs very well - there seems to be an implicit assumption that you'll just immediately understand both how to use tabs and why you'd want to.
The "how" is the easiest part. There are several ways to create tabs - once you have a browser that has this feature. If you are using Firefox or some other tab capable browser, right clicking on a link lets you choose "Open Link in New Tab". You can do the same thing with Bookmarks - right click, and choose the new tab option. That's great, but if you are new to this, you are probably confused already because unless you look carefully, it doesn't seem like anything special happened when you did that: the page opened, and so what?
So let's do it a different way, at least at first. Choose File -> New Tab. This opens a blank page, with a tab that says "(Untitled)", and now you are much more apt to notice the tab to its left that has the title of your other page (the page you started at). Click on that tab, and you are back at your first page. Click on the "(Untitled)" tab again, and you return to the blank page. Now, while in the blank tab, either type something into the browser address box or pull down and select a bookmark. Your page appears, and the "(Untitled)" tab gets a label from that page.
You probably didn't notice these tabs when you just did the right click, but now that you understand what happens, you can open new tabs with whatever seems more natural too you. With some browsers, you can set a preference so that all links clicked open in a new tab rather than replacing the existing window or opening a new window.
OK, so it is easy to open pages in tabs. What's the big deal? Why do people talk about this like they just discovered chocolate ice cream? Well, if you are a serious web user, you probably always have three or four pages open at once and are switching back and forth between them. Without tabs, you use the Window menu, or your task bar. There's no tremendous advantage of tabs over those methods, but if you try tabs for a while, you might find that you like them better. But here's something you can only do with tabs: bookmark a whole set at once. If you have a favorite set of pages you always have open, you can bookmark the whole set at once and reopen all of them in tabs with one click. So, for example, I have my home page, Gmail, Google Groups, and my Adsense page saved as a group. One click, and they are all open, ready for me. I can click to move betwwen them, or just use CTRL-PageUp and CTRL-PageDown - that's much more convenient than windows. Of course I still can use browser windows, and I do : I have another, different set of tabbed pages in a separate browser window.
More recently, Firefox added the ability to have a set of tabs as your "Home" page - that makes it very easy to have all your favorite pages load when Firefox opens. However, it does mean that you can't click the Home icon again without opening another set of the same pages, doubling every one if the original set is still open.
That's why tabbed browsing is important, and why more and more browsers have the feature or will be adding it soon. Even the next version of Internet Explorer will finally add tabs.
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More Articles by Tony Lawrence © 2009-11-07 Tony Lawrence
Anyone who puts a small gloss on a fundamental technology, calls it proprietary, and then tries to keep others from building on it, is a thief. (Tim O'Reilly)