I love Google’s Chrome browser. In my view it has really raised the bar on what we should expect from our web browser and for a time other vendors have been playing catch-up.

Being a developer by trade, I love to ride the bleeding edge of technology and embrace all of the bugs and crashes that go hand-in-hand with this fast-paced vantage point of the future and as such I happily run Chrome in the “dev” channel.

For those not aware, Chrome has 4 release “channels” that it pushes builds out for

  • Stable – This is the mainstream release of the browser where features and considdered working and stable. Most users are on this channel
  • Beta – We should all be familiar with “beta” releases, they are “close to completion” releases that allow the general public to find and report bugs while still playing with the latest release
  • Dev – Before a build hits beta it is released as an “in progress” build where features are still being defined, refined and improved. Bugs are being fixed and more are being created. Dev builds have in the past gone for days at a time being quite broken and in one instance unusable.
  • Canary – These are essentially the nightly builds and the Chromium guys force these to be run standalone from any other Chrome installation for obvious reasons. Canary builds often buggy as hell and highly unstable.

Now, back in July last year the Chromium guys released a dev build of chrome which contained an experimental flag (Check out chrome://flags if you are in chrome and also check http://peter.sh/experiments/chromium-command-line-switches/ for some others) to enable vertical tabs which looked something like:

Vertical Tabs In Chrome

Now, vertical tabs are very much a “per-user” preference much the same way as keyboards and mice are, they are not good for everyone but for me they solved the following problems:

  • Too many tabs – This hits a lot of web users, especially web developers programmers. At any given moment I can have 30+ tabs open (I hear that can be a relatively low number) including a core of pinned tabs (GMail, Hootsuite, Google+, Facebook and Yammer), a handfull of bug tracking tickets and reports, blog posts I want to read or want to do something with, search results, stack overflow pages, API documentation, the list goes on.
  • Sea of icons – Related to “Too many tabs” I tend to end up with a sea of icons along the top of my browser where the tab has been compressed so much that all I see is the icon of the tab and nothing else. This makes navigating far harder, especially when you have 7 pages of search results all of which have the Google icon.
  • Vertical space – The tab bar takes up 25 pixels at the very top of the window and yes, that isn’t a large amount of pixels in the grand scheme of things but all of the monitors I use are 22″ widescreens so vertical real estate is prime. I want to see as much of a page without scrolling as I can.

I found that with vertical tabs I was able be much more productive. I would have my pinned tabs in their own section at the very top of the list and then I could order the various tabs by importance after that. Because I could see the first word or so of the title of each page I could find what I was looking for far faster. As for the space issue, well I have pleanty of space horizontally so losing 140 pixels at the side of my browser is fine, this is the same reason I have my Windows 7 taskbar on the left hand side of my monitors.

So if this works so well, why the blog post?

Last week when Chrome automatically updated to the latest dev build (16.0.904.0 dev-m) I noticed that my tabs were all horizontal again. Being the resourceful chap that I am I immediately loaded up the chrome://flags page to see if it had been reset, I then found out that it had been removed entirely.

This triggered a google search for ‘Chrome 16.0.904.0 dev-m’ and I found, at the very top of the list, this discussion on Google Groups which led to this issue on the Chromium bug tracker. In short, the entire feature was removed because “As an experiment, side tabs weren’t a success – a small number of people really passionately loved them, but they ended up not being compelling enough to make the cut” says ‘Glen’, the person responsible for removing the feature.

This actually threw me, vertical tabs were gone, no replacement was offered, extensions can’t do anything with the tab UI and there was no timeline on when any more work on the “too many tabs” problem was going to produce anything. I had to set down my tools and ended up rather frustrated at this. I read on the thread that people were switching to Firefox and using Tree Style Tab to get the functionality back.

Now me and Firefox (aka Firepiggy, Firefucked) fell out just before Chrome was released, the memory leak was rediculous and even just having web develop extensions installed was turning it more and more into a piece of bloatware. I was using Opera as a replacement because the speed it offered was unparalelled. As a result, I don’t use Firefox for work, I only use it to test sites out but with version 7 I had already seen that it was far nippier at starting up and also at loading complex pages than it was, it had actually become a useable browser once again. Mozilla have also started to follow a similar release process to Google albeit a little slower. They have their release channels too and they work much the same as Chrome so this also helped the case for a switch.

I fired up the little fox, added the extension (as well asĀ Omnibar because lets face it, seperate serach boxes from URLs are so last decade) and started copying my open tabs across from Chrome. The first thing I noticed was that Pinned Tabs in Tree Style Tab were terrible so I unpinned them and instead nested them under the Gmail tab (this is where the ‘tree’ comes into play). So now I have my tabs laid out like this:

Tab layout in Firefox

This actually goes one step further than Chrome as I have more management options at my disposal and I can also promote any of the tabs to tab groups. I can expand and collapse trees, I can move tabs between trees, I can bookmark entire trees. This for me is the optimal configuration for the way I interact with tabs in my browser. As a result, Chrome is no longer the default browser on my office machine, it has barely even been opened since I configured Firefox and until Chrome does something to address the “Too many tabs” problem, this is how it will remain for myself and many other Chrome users out there.

Google, I know you want to build a lightweight browser but really, I think you underestimate the value this feature brough to Chrome and also the number of users it had. It was hidden away in an obsecure location so most users wouldn’t have a clue how to find it so I don’t feel you have a true idea of how many people could have used it if it were promoted to be a first class citezen.

If there are 85,000+ users who use Tree Style Tab in Firefox, what does this tell you? It tells me that in this case the Firefox community got it right and Chrome got it wrong.