Tech

Meet The Man Who Invented The Browser Tab

Adam Stiles recalls “the first tab” and how he came to create the atomic unit of internet navigation.

In the summer of 1997, a 25-year-old Pasadena software developer named Adam Stiles started working on a new web browser in his spare time. On January 4 of the following year, when Stiles published SimulBrowse, the first users would have noticed a peculiar feature at the bottom of the browser window: small grey boxes, each corresponding to a different webpage, which could be toggled between by clicking.

Those boxes were the first browser tabs, the now-standard unit of internet navigation.

SimulBrowse—which Stiles would soon change to NetCaptor and run until 2005—was the first tabbed web browser in the contemporary sense. And it wasn’t an evolutionary hiccup; it was directly responsible for the incorporation of the tabbed browsing standard into Mozilla in 2002; after that, the time of the tab was nigh.

The tab has had a profound influence on the way we experience the web. Its creation has directly contributed to the internet’s collective attention problem and obsession with multi-tasking. Not only has the tab changed the way humans experience and organize the internet, it has changed the vernacular. The tab has rendered the term “webpage” quaint and, in some circles, has acquired its own loaded meaning (not to mention its own newsletter) as a unit of thoroughly dispensable and or aggravating content. BuzzFeed asked Stiles, now the CTO of the mobile commerce startup Tap Theory, about his role as the Father of the Tab.

Did you have an “aha!” moment, when you realized that tabbed browsing would be a good thing to put in NetCaptor?

Adam Stiles: NetCaptor (originally SimulBrowse) was built from the beginning to be a tabbed browser. The HTML editor I was using at the time (HomeSite) had tabs, so I was used to flipping between a bunch of HTML documents. I wanted the same thing in my browser, so I built it. At first it was just an experiment to see if I could do it.

Were there any major technical challenges inherent to adding tab functionality? Can you, in layman’s terms, explain the process of adding tabs to a web browser?

Technically I didn’t add tabs to a web browser - I built a web browser with tabs that embedded the Microsoft HTML rendering engine on each tab. There’s no way a single developer could do this part-time if Microsoft hadn’t made it easy to embed the rendering engine from their browser in other applications. I focused most of my time on the user experience and “chrome” like toolbars, menus, tabs, and didn’t have to think much about how to render HTML. Things only got really complicated when I was implementing ad blocking, popup blocking, phishing detection, etc.

Do you remember what the first two tabs were?

I have no idea which the first two tabs would have been, though I was a big Slashdot.org fan, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that was one of them.

Did you have any inkling when you made the tabbed browser that the feature would become so ubiquitous?

I don’t think I did. I also didn’t have any idea that it would become my full-time job from 1999 to 2004, and that it would fund my next startup.

Did you have a moment when you realized that the feature you invented was in fact becoming a standard?

I don’t remember a specific moment, because it took many years (1997 through 2005 or so). There were IE-shells like NetCaptor, then Mozilla/Firefox, followed by Opera, Safari and IE.

Do you see any downsides to tabbed browsing, particularly the way we use it today? Other than the obvious, how do you think tabbed browsing has changed the way we use the internet?

I think tabbed browsing gets out of control when users don’t have good bookmarking systems. I have friends who end up with 50 tabs open at a time. They want to return to a given page at some later date, but don’t have a good method of saving those for later or remembering to return. On mobile, that’s solved reasonably well with apps like Instapaper and Pocket. But on desktop, that problem doesn’t seem to be solved. Bookmarking systems can feel to heavy or permanent. And if you have been around a while, you know bookmarking apps tend to come and go (ie Delicious and Kippt).

I wonder if you feel any sense of responsibility or ownership, good or bad, about the culture of tab proliferation that you described? Do you have any personal feelings about it?

I feel entirely neutral about it. Tabbed browsers are just tools. You can use them well, or you can use them poorly. Chrome is now my favorite browser, and I have a reasonable number of tabs open. I don’t have a personal problem with tab proliferation. If I did, maybe I’d try to solve that too.

Are you aware of the use of ‘tab’ as a slang for a disposable unit of internet content? Like, an annoying article or piece of grist for the discussion mill?

I’ve never heard it used that way - but I guess it makes sense. But the idea of disposable content makes sense - people want to keep tabs open so they can remember to visit or take action later, but not to go so far as to bookmark a site. And so for many, tabs are used as ephemeral containers of pages they may need later.

Do you wish you’d gotten more credit for the creation of tabbed browsing?

If you’d asked me ten years ago, I probably would have been sad that I didn’t get more credit for it, or that I didn’t make more money off the idea. But now, so many years later, I realize that if I hadn’t done it, someone else would have built a tabbed browser, probably around the same time. So “tabbed browsing” is a fun part of my story, but I have no regrets.

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