The invention of tabbed browsing has made surfing the web quite a bit easier. With screen real estate being a limited resource on our portable machines (and often even on larger ones), managing multiple web pages using tabs provides a convenient solution. After all, browsing is often synonymous with multitasking: we keep our mailbox open while reading an article or keep Pandora on in the background as we fire up Facebook.
Tabbed browsing can, however, get out of hand quite often. The Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox extension catalogs are filled with add-ons devoted to helping users navigate through their dozens of tabs, herding them into groups or color-coding them for sorting. While helpful, these add-ons do little to assist with sites that we often keep open in the background. Even the most complex tab managers relegate consistent pages such as your mailbox or your Twitter/Facebook to being just another tab among 10, even if it’s now bright red for better tracking.
You could go on just reserving a tab for these frequent pages, keeping them in the leftmost slots for easy access. Most of these sites, however, share the common trait of being web applications. Gmail, Pandora and the like aren’t just dead assortments of text and images but rather interactive programs accessed over the web. In the new world of cloud computing and increased internet capabilities, web applications appear the new norm.
So if your tabs are all cluttered up with web apps, the logical next step seems to be taking the “web” out and running them as standard applications. Twitter and a few other companies even provide a desktop client of their web app, knowing that not everyone wants to access the site. Far more companies, however, either restrict their web app (Pandora) or don’t offer one at all (Gmail).
Enter Site-Specific Browers (SSB). It’s a simple concept: take that web application’s site and devote a dedicated browser to it, running it as a standard program. Instead of opening Chrome and pointing it to www.gmail.com, you can instead click your new Gmail app and it will open straight to the site. Users can get rid of those persistent tabs that never seem to disappear and give them their own space to run as distinct applications.
Site-Specific Browsers might, for a minute, seem almost too simple. If tabbed browsing was an overload, spreading everything out into different windows seems a strange solution. But running a site as an SSB is more than a costume change, and there are advantages to being a full-blooded application.
For one, an SSB will now benefit from the multitasking tools provided for standard programs in the operating system. Instead of clicking back and forth between a dozen color-coded tabs, users can now avail themselves of features like Apple’s Mission Control or Microsoft’s quick-switch commands. Apple and Microsoft spend a lot of time developing multitasking tools, so it would be a waste not to use them where we need them most.
A second advantage is alerts. We don’t need to stare at our inbox for hours on end; we just want to know when we have a new message. In Chrome or Firefox, that information pops up as a miniscule note in the tab header. But as an SSB, that alert appears as a clear, red badge on the dock or even plugged into a notification app like Growl.
There are, of course, limitations. The clear limit is how many SSBs you can make. After a certain point, even with the better multitasking tools of the operating system, you’re back at the same problem of managing all those windows. On Macintosh, creating an SSB is a one-click process using a free app named Fluid. You tell it the URL, the name for your new program and [optional] feed it an image for the new program. On Windows, I have yet to find an SSB creator that’s as simple (but I’m sure there’s one out there).
In the end, Site-Specific Browsers at least have a sweet spot. The odds are good that you listen to Pandora or use Gmail (which makes for a great SSB). If that’s the case, go download Fluid for free and give it a shot. You’ll save yourself the tab headache, improve email access and alerts and snag a free Pandora program for your computer.