There are two kinds of Web surfers in the world. Some prefer to open new pages as tabs within the same browser window. Others open each Web page as a new window, accumulating lots of entries on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. On the face of it, this battle between Ctrl-T and Ctrl-N seems totally mundane. A few years from now, however, I think we'll look back on the gradual drift to tabs as the browser's bid for emancipation. Using tabs to multitask eliminates the need for new windows. Down the line, it may eliminate the need for Windows altogether. When you open a new tab, it's as if your browser is telling you, Pay no attention to anything else on your computer. Everything you need is right here.
Mozilla made tabbed browsing mainstream by incorporating the feature into Firefox. Now the software nonprofit is looking for new ways to keep all of your activities in-house. Last month, Mozilla announced a design contest soliciting ideas for a better way to manage lots of pages at once. "Today, 20+ parallel sessions are quite common," the announcement read. "[T]he browser is more of an operating system than a data display application."
This isn't so much mission creep for Firefox as mission ambush. Chrome, the Google browser that launched last fall, betrayed similar ambitions in a 38-page comic book that was created to promote the product. "Today, most of what we use the Web for on a day-to-day basis aren't just Web pages, they're applications," read the first panel of the first page.
In the last few years, scores of applications that your operating system used to manage have migrated to the browser: word processors, IM clients, e-mail, games, music players, personal finance tools, and on and on. Which leads inevitably to the question: If the primary function of computers these days is to run a browser and connect to the Internet, do we really need Windows and its 50 million lines of code?
The browser-as-OS is certainly an attractive idea, if only as an alternative to Windows' bloat and sluggish performance. Firefox, with its open platform and sprawling library of free add-ons, seems in theory like a much better model for how your PC's core software should work.
Developers at Mozilla, Google, and other non-Microsoft shops are eager to talk about how we're all set to relocate personal computing to the browser. In real life, though, not many of us have fully embraced the idea of porting all of our treasured applications to the Web. You may use Google Docs when you need to collaborate with someone at work, but that novel you've been chipping away at is on your hard drive as a Word document.