Creative Destruction

August 13, 2006

Microsoft Misses The Point

Filed under: The World's Oldest Profession — Robert @ 12:13 am

Full disclosure: I used to work for Microsoft, have good friends there, wish them all well, still have a soft spot for the company, and learned more about software design and development just from breathing the air in Redmond than I have picked up in any number of classrooms or even doing it on my own.

So, when I say, “Jiminy, these guys are as dumb as a box of rocks,” it’s coming from a place of love.

They’ve slipstreamed tabbed browsing into IE 6.0 SP 2. And it sucks.

Why do you open a link in a new tab? Duh: because there’s a link on the page you are currently reading that you want to investigate, but you aren’t done with the page that you’re currently reading. If you were done with the page you’re on, you would just click the link. If you knew the link in question was one you would keep even before you saw it, you would directly bookmark it. Opening a tab lets you save the new site in what amounts to a one-time bookmark, and read it at your leisure. In fact, I regularly browse with Firefox like this: open a page, open-in-new-tab any links of interest as I go, finish reading, close the page I’m on, move to the next open tab, repeat. Sometimes I’ll go 30 minutes, all from one starting page and the links and stories that follow. Simple. Efficient. Elegant.

So, like all things that are simple, efficient, and elegant, Microsoft eagerly jumps in to figure out how to **** it up.

They do so with breathtaking simplicity. It’s very easy: when you open-in-new-tab a link, IE graciously and eagerly opens up a new tab and loads the page for you. And then it SWITCHES YOUR FOCUS TO THE NEW TAB. So, if you weren’t done with the first page, back you click. Can you change this behavior in the preferences? Don’t be stupid. Of course you can’t.

I’m convinced that somewhere in the bowels of Redmond West, there is a diabolical cabal of program managers who – for reasons unknown, possibly involving a terrible experience in childhood – are convinced that all users are fools who don’t know where they actually want their UI focus to be. (By UI focus, I mean which window is open, on top of the UI, and accepting commands). MS products – particularly their setup routines, for some reason – are very fond of stealing your focus and insisting that they are the process the user needs to be interacting with now. Sometimes they are correct – sometimes the user DOES want a modal dialog to pop up and demand clarification so it can continue the work that the user wants to get done in the background. Usually, they are not correct. My personal favorite is a text message that used to be a common sight in MS setup dialogs, along the lines of “you can continue your work while Setup completes this process”. And indeed, you could continue your work – for up to 15 seconds at a time, before Setup would steal the focus again to put up a new screen informing you that you could continue your work.

It’s really amazing that nobody has ever bombed the place. It’s right there off the highway.

This IE cockup is merely the latest entry in a list that (I assume) Steve Ballmer is compiling entitled “1001 Proofs That We Don’t Know Dick About Coding User Interfaces”. I would love to have the job of UI Czar at Microsoft, if the position carried with it a license to beat on people with a baseball bat. Oh, the good that could be done.

Please, guys. Fix this one before it becomes set in concrete in IE 7. Nobody wants their new tab to take focus. Whoever told you they did is a lying weasel who should be killed. I know that you feel the need to differentiate yourself from Firefox, which is (sorry, my brothers) simply a superior piece of technology. But this is a feature that they got right and which nobody ever needs to change. Swallow your pride, copy the correct UI decision, and find some other arena to differentiate yourselves in. Firefox 1.5 seems a bit wonky with a lot of pages; try for the Stability and Crashproof Prize and I assure you, an audience will be there for you. You don’t have to be different just to be different.

(Note to Steve Ballmer: I already have a baseball bat. I’m just saying.)



  1. Bob, I don’t know if you know this… but while reading that, I got this voice in the back of my head, a la HBO-era Dennis Miller, going “Now I don’t want to go off on a rant here, but…”


    Comment by Off Colfax — August 13, 2006 @ 1:02 am | Reply

  2. Bob, I don’t know if you know this… but while reading that, I got this voice in the back of my head….

    Frankly, if Bob had known about the voice in the back of your head, I would find that disturbing.


    Comment by Ampersand — August 13, 2006 @ 7:28 am | Reply

  3. While using Microsoft products I so often have to ask myself if they actually put this in front of anyone for comments before they shipped it. Assuming they must have, I normally assume I must just be weird, until I talk to friends and discover they’re annoyed by exactly the same things.

    Comment by Mark Carroll — August 13, 2006 @ 9:48 am | Reply

  4. I’ve seen tabbed browsing implemented both ways Bob describes. I use Mac at home (browsing with Netscape mostly, and some with Safari) and Windows at work (browsing with IE). Netscape opens the tab and goes there; Safari opens the tab and stays where it was; IE (in the version I use) has no tabbed browsing, which is an irritant.

    I noticed the difference between Netscape and Safari immediately, but my habits had already conformed to the Netscape UI, which mirrors the UI Bob describes above as problematic. So it doesn’t pose a problem for me. I usually finish what I’m reading before opening the new tab, not the other way around.

    The ideal situation would be to have a preference to allow the user to choose which way he intends to go on opening a new tab. It could be global, or even better, with an extra key could be individually actuated when the new tab is opened.

    Comment by Brutus — August 13, 2006 @ 12:25 pm | Reply

  5. Yep, that would be the ideal, Brutus. Fat chance.

    I forwarded this post to a buddy at MS. His response was that he can’t think about this because he’s too depressed about the ongoing memory leak issue in IE. Apparently if you open an IE instance and let it sit open for a few days, it sucks up all your RAM.

    Comment by Robert — August 13, 2006 @ 5:55 pm | Reply

  6. Times like this I start thinking about going Linux.

    Then, I find I can’t muster the energy to make the change.

    Damn you, Microsoft. Exploiting my intertia!

    Comment by Adam Gurri — August 13, 2006 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

  7. The ideal situation would be to have a preference to allow the user to choose which way he intends to go on opening a new tab.

    Both Safari and Netscape do this for Macs, at least the versions I use do.

    For Netscape 7.2 for Mac 10.2.8, go to the “Netscape” option on the menu on the top of the screen, click on preferences. In the preferences menu, go to Navigator, then “tabbed browsing” then on “Tab display” choose “load links in the background.” New tabs that you open by going to “File” “New” “Navigator Tab” will still load in the foreground, but linked tabs open in the background.

    In Safari (version 1.0.3), go to “Safari” and click on “Preferences.” Go to tabs, and click on “slect new tabs as they are created” for new tabs to open in the foreground.

    Comment by Glaivester — August 13, 2006 @ 10:08 pm | Reply

  8. Sometimes when I open a link in a new tab, I do it because I want to read that page later, but carry on with the page I’m already on for now. (one-time bookmark)

    Sometimes when I open a link in a new tab, I do it because I want to read that page now, but know that I will want to return to the page I’m currently on later, and who knows how many links I’ll have followed by then? (a milestone to make up for back buttons being crappy)

    Firefox only lets me do the first, which annoys me. I want both of them.

    Comment by Dave Hinton — August 14, 2006 @ 6:05 am | Reply

  9. I’m positive that you can do both in Firefox, with the correct plug-in installed.

    Comment by Ampersand — August 14, 2006 @ 6:09 am | Reply

  10. Firefox (with extension), Netscape, and Opera all do this. I hate IE and refuse to use it.

    Comment by Judi — August 17, 2006 @ 2:39 am | Reply

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