Tab Candy, a tab management feature in development for Firefox, is one of the best new features I’ve seen in a browser in years. Plenty of tab management extensions have been developed to tame tabs, but Tab Candy takes the cake.
Try to remember life before browser tabs, if you can. Managing three, four, or twenty browser windows was an enormous pain in the posterior. Then tabs became a standard feature in Mozilla browsers and others. If you remember how much nicer using a Web browser was when going from dozens of windows to dozens of tabs, you’ll appreciate how much Tab Candy improves using tabs.
Firefox developer Aza Raskin writes about the problems posed by tabs and that he’s trying to solve with Tab Candy. Basically, the problem is “information proliferation” where we have so much information at our fingertips that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of it all easily. Unless you use the Web very sparingly, you’ve probably had the experience of working on a bunch of different tasks all requiring the browser. For instance, I’m writing this column about Tab Candy while I also have my Webmail open, Twitter and Identi.ca, a page showing flight information and travel plans, and the Linux Magazine backend open. That’s a light load, because I’m traveling. In my home office I usually work on three or four writing projects at a time, plus social media sites, mail, and so on.
In short, information overload. Using Tab Candy I can still have all that information at my fingertips, but organized in such a way that I can move between tasks easily.
Groups and Visualization
Tab Candy gives me two important capabilities that have boosted productivity in a short time. First is a simple Expose-like tiling feature that shows all open tabs as thumbnails. Other tab extensions have done this, so in and of itself the thumbnail feature is a nice addition to mainline, but not revolutionary.
The next feature is what makes Tab Candy insanely great, to borrow the words of Steve Jobs. Groups. Other extensions have allowed for groups, I believe, but not as easily as Tab Candy. Here’s what you get: Tab Candy starts with a single group. When you have two or more tabs, you can drag a tab away into its own group. Repeat as needed to build a tab group with the tabs you want to use.
Here’s where it gets even better, click on a group and Firefox will only show that group — assuming you have only one Firefox window open.
So if you have five tabs open for a project that you’re working on, you can open just that tab group and focus on the pages you’re using for the project. You can keep another group for sites like Twitter and Identi.ca, and hide that group when you’re working. You could have yet another group for mail, or for Web applications, etc. One little oddity, at least at this stage of development, is that Tab Candy doesn’t display some child windows at all. For instance, when you open a new window from an email in Gmail, it doesn’t show up at all as a manageable tab.
The tab groups are also resizable. You can resize the groups in the thumbnail view to be smaller or larger depending on the importance of the group. So if you use a group frequently, you can make it larger, or smaller for sets you don’t use often. Each group is shown as a tile with smaller thumbnails for the content of each tab.
Even better, the whole thing is navigable using the keyboard. Ctrl-Space triggers it on Linux, and you can use the Tab and arrow keys to navigate between the open tabs and launch a group.
I Want Candy!
Unfortunately, Tab Candy isn’t ready for the mainline Firefox releases and it’s provided (right now) as a full-blown Minefield (Firefox development) build rather than as an extension. It looks stable and like it’s headed for inclusion in Firefox, but it is important to realize it is in development and might not even make it to mainline.
But if you’re willing to go with the bleeding edge, you can start using Tab Candy today. The builds that Raskin has provided are working out fairly well for me so far, if a bit slower than the Firefox 4 beta I’ve been running. But I haven’t tested them on all platforms or for very long. Use at your own risk, and make sure to back up your profile before running experimental versions of Firefox. (But you knew that already, right?)
The only complaint I have with Tab Candy is that I didn’t have it sooner. Want to follow the development discussion? Check out the meta-bug for tracking Tab Candy’s trek to trunk. Give it a try and let Mozilla know how it works for you.
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