Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

Windows to Tabs

I upgraded to Tinderbox 6 when it was released in late summer. There was a lot to love about the new version, but also plenty of things to adapt to. Perhaps the most jarring (and initially disruptive to my work) was the introduction of tabs.

Adapting to Tabs

The switch from windows to tabs in Tinderbox 6 sent me into a tailspin that lasted for several weeks. Somehow I experienced tabs as a brake keeping me from thinking properly as I worked. The problem was clearly conceptual, but I couldn’t identify exactly what it was.

This was, in a sense, ridiculous. Tabs are everywhere on my computer and have become the more-or-less default approach to presenting multiple views within a piece of software. I use them in my browser everyday, and they are certainly tidier and easier to manage on the small MacBook Air that I use when I’m out and about.

And yes, eventually I grew to like Tinderbox’s tabs because, regardless of how I felt about them initially, they were helpful. Full-screen mode on my MBAir was now workable, for example, and the new link-anchor system that appears designed to support tabs seemed much easier to use than the old toolbar-based system. More importantly, to the extent that tabs implied strong boundaries between materials, they offered a very useful tool for bringing distinct but still related materials into productive contact in a non-chaotic way. (This is reflected in my admin file, which consolidates what had been three separate projects in Tinderbox 5. Each of the original projects is consigned to its own tab in Tinderbox 6.)

And yet.

Something about tabs still nagged at me. Then last week, I finally figured out what it was.

Sheets and Screens

In Tinderbox 5, I saw multiple text windows as multiple sheets of paper arranged across a dining room table. Using them I felt as if the software’s frame had slipped away. My project file was unrepresented on the screen. All that was visible were those pieces of it that I chose to work with. I could shuffle, revise, arrange and stack these pieces on my desktop and I could do it however I wanted to. My computer desktop had became a kind of map view but with editable note texts. This was powerful and something I could not reproduce in other software. Not even close.

Tabs present me with a very different metaphor. Although in theory, they could be imagined as stacks of paper, in practice they felt like different display screens. When I switch from one tab to the next, I perceive this as moving from one computer desktop (or display) to another. (I assume I’m carrying this idea over from iOS.) On the small screen of my MBAir, tabs offered an ingenious way to manage and use limited display space. But on my larger iMac screen what I now saw was my project file, drawn inside the software frame, and rightly or wrongly, I felt boxed in.

Sheets and Stacks

Now I learn that the newly available point-one version of Tinderbox 6 reinstates saved window states, and however much I’ve grown to appreciate tabs, I’m very excited. In a sense, multiple windows are back. They work differently, and I’m only just beginning to experiment, but to me it now feels like the old choice between sheets of paper and screens (i.e windows v. tabs) is gone. What I’ve got now is an opportunity to work with both sheets of paper and stacks of paper (i.e. windows and tabbed windows).

I think I like this change a lot and that it is a good example of the workmanship that goes into Tinderbox. Things change but they also get better and more powerful.

Posted October 4, 2014