The Tragedy of Safari
There’s a paradox for any popular piece of software. People demand new features and improvements, but they revolt if you change too much. So the there’s a tricky balance in delivering the appearance of new features without actually changing anything significant. The only way to get people to “think different” is to create a completely different product. And sometimes, even that isn’t enough.
Don’t believe me? Consider Apple’s Safari redesign of 2021. At WWDC, Apple unveiled a completely new interface for their default browser, and it worked across macOS, iPadOS and iOS. It was a major rethink of what a browser was, and people hated it. Apple ended up rolling back most of the changes, and allowed people to, for the most part, keep Safari as they were accustomed to.
Why was it so reviled? The status quo in web browsers was a window containing tabs, and each tab was a container for a web page. The browser controls, called “chrome” (note the lower case C), were universal and separate from the contents of the tabs.
The new Safari was different. Apple realized that the primary way people use the web was no longer pages, but apps. So they redesigned Safari to become whatever app the user was using. This is similar to Steve Jobs’ description of the iPad as a single sheet of glass that becomes whatever the user needs it to be.
Instead of tabs (and Apple did themselves no favors here by allowing them to continue being called tabs, breaking the metaphor), the little rounded rectangles across the top of the window were better understood as separate address bars for each website. When you clicked on a different address bar, the entire window changed, taking on the colors of the web app and blending the “browser chrome” into the app itself. You didn’t have a Gmail tab, you had a Gmail window, but you could make the window become something else with a single click on a different bar.
This integrated into another new feature in Safari called Tab Groups. These were displayed in a vertical column to the left of the content. You could have a different group for different purposes, and switch all of them at once. For example, you could have a group called Media containing YouTube, Pocket, Spotify, Disney+, etc. You could have a group called Money containing YNAB, your bank’s site, Amazon. A group called Social with Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr. You could switch quickly between groups, or you could have a different group open in different windows. Most of the pundits I’ve read or listened to (Gruber, Viticci, et al), even a year later, still say they don’t use Tab Groups very much, if at all. It doesn’t fit with the way they think of Safari.
There’s a new Chromium-based browser in preview right now called Arc. It’s getting a lot of praise and excitement, because it’s a completely new way of thinking about a browser. Pages take up the entire window, and act more like independent apps than just websites. You can group them in Spaces which appear in a column to the left of the content. Switching between spaces changes all the apps you see at one time. It’s very exciting!
Why are the same people that pilloried Apple’s attempt to do the very same thing so excited about Arc? Because they don’t have any preconceptions about Arc. It’s a new product, so it doesn’t have a status quo to uphold. Nearly identical concepts that were met with scorn in Safari are seen as new and different.
We’re seeing something similar in the migration of Twitter users to Mastodon, proving that sometimes even a new app or service isn’t enough to upend the status quo. A big topic of conversation on Mastodon from Twitter immigrants is that Mastodon isn’t similar enough to Twitter. They can’t get their heads around having to pick a server rather than having everyone in the same place, even though they’ve been aware of that concept via email services for decades. They don’t understand why they can’t quote tweet, no matter how many times Mastodon natives point out how the point of Mastodon is to talk with someone rather than at them. And as the Twitter immigrants quickly outnumber the original users, the culture of the service fades.
The next time you find yourself resisting change, ask yourself why. Is the new thing you’re faced with really worse than what you’re used to, or just not what you’re used to?