The curious case of the Google Chrome tab close button

Posted in Software at 10:33 pm by

John Gruber points out a post by Basil Safwat that defends Google Chrome’s incorrect placement of the tab close button on Mac OS X. Safwat’s defense of the button is based on some nifty optimizations that Google’s engineers have made to their tab resizing behavior, such that users can continually hover in a single spot and close a large number of tabs with impunity, whether users are closing tabs from the right side of the tab bar or from the left side (see Safwat’s screenshots, if you haven’t already read his detailed analysis).

Like the old fixed-on-the-right-edge-of-the-tab-bar tab close button found in Mozilla and early versions of Firefox, and still seen today in SeaMonkey, I find this behavior very puzzling (actually, I found the Mozilla/Firefox/SeaMonkey version infuriating as well, since when I was mousing, I had to mouse over to the right edge of the window to a close any tab) and am surprised no one has questioned optimizing for it. That is, what is the use-case for serially closing a number of tabs—but not all of the tabs in a window—within seconds of each other, such that delaying the resizing of remaining tabs and the incorrect positioning of the close button on the tab are required? When I open lots of tabs, I typically handle them one by one, closing each when I’m done with it (often opening new ones in the process), and my cursor almost certainly won’t be sitting still in the same place as I interact with and process a series of tabs. Conversely, when I’m going to declare tab bankruptcy, there’s a great close button on the left side of my window to get rid of everything in a single click (well, two, since I have Camino warn me when closing a window full of tabs, but you get the idea), saving myself however many clicks would be required to close each tab individually, immediately after one another. I’m sure now and again I’ve accumulated a small number of throw-away tabs, but it’s never happened frequently enough that I’ve wondered if there were something we could change in Camino to make serial tab closing with the mouse more efficient.

When Firefox moved the close button off of the tab bar and on to individual tabs where it belonged, there were certainly complaints from adherents of the fixed-position button, but their arguments, to the best of my recollection of those long-passed days, were simply “the fixed button makes it easy to close a bunch of tabs at once,” without any explanation of how or when or why those users got themselves into a situation where they needed to close a number of tabs, but not all of them, right after each other.

It’s curious; why put so much effort into optimizing tab resizing after close and so flagrantly violate a cardinal rule of the Mac OS X UI grammar (in Gruber’s terms) that even the notoriously un-Mac-like Opera gets correct, to promote such a seemingly obscure set of browsing habits?


  1. User Grav­atarMoises Machado said,

    12.10.09 at 11:53 pm

    actually the resizing would work even if the close button had been putted on the left, but when a user serial-close tabs on the right the delayed tab resizing would leave empty space on the left and *that* would be totally awkward for left-right readers

  2. User Grav­atarDavid Hammond said,

    12.11.09 at 12:51 am

    It’s actually pretty common for me to want to close multiple tabs within a few seconds, without closing the whole window. Here are two examples scenarios that come up every now and then:

    1. I’m diagnosing a software glitch or installing something that requires some troubleshooting. I probably have a tab open for Gmail (viewing the request or preparing a status update for my supervisor), maybe another tab with a tutorial, a tab for google searches, and then a whole bunch of tabs with various forum posts, bug tickets, etc. that I found on Google. I’m probably opening and closing tabs rapidly, looking for some solution.

    By the time I find the solution and confirm that it works, I want to clear out that mess of tabs from the Google search page onward. So, I start at the last tab in the tab bar, and I just click in rapid succession until I’m staring at that original tutorial page. Personally, I’ve removed the close buttons altogether and instead close tabs by middle-clicking on the tabs, and this provides sufficient tab surface area so I usually don’t have to move my mouse between click. But, obviously, if I were clicking on a close button, it would be ideal for that close button to stay at the same place between clicks.

    2. I’m off work, watching YouTube videos. Oftentimes, after watching a video, I’ll see one or two related videos and open them in new tabs. At some point, I’ll close a tab or two, and then branch out again as I see another video that catches my eye. The number of tabs open over time usually goes up and down pretty wildly, but overall it tends to increase over time to the point where I may have a couple dozen tabs open (often including my Gmail and Google Reader tabs).

    Eventually, I’ll get bored of watching videos and move on to something else, but I want to close all of those YouTube videos first. So, I just rapidly middle-click until those tabs are all gone. It’s usually faster than closing the window and opening a new one, especially if I want to keep Gmail and Google Reader there. (I know I could have used a separate window, but sometimes that whole thing starts as “I’ll just watch one video…”)

  3. User Grav­atarJ. said,

    12.11.09 at 1:10 am

    Why shouldn’t a browser handle serial closing of tabs gracefully? Since it doesn’t hinder someone who only closes one tab at a time in any way, in what way could this be a bad thing.

    As for use cases, it doesn’t take that many tab closes before you have to adjust your mouse, especially if you have a lot of tabs open in the first place. I just checked firefox and with only 4-5 tabs open you can only close one tab without having to reposition your mouse (give or take a bit if you not perfectly centered on the close button). So you don’t need to have to close a ton of tabs before you encounter this. Sometimes when I have some tabs open to compare things, prices at different online stores, images, things like that. I will make a choice and want to close them, it may only be three or four tabs but its enough to make me readjust my mouse several times.

    It might not be a frequent use case, but when it effects you its annoying, doing it the Chrome way no one get annoyed, ever. Therefore its better.

    PS. There is no reason for right close button on mac other than to annoy Gruber.

  4. User Grav­atarColby Russell said,

    12.11.09 at 2:20 am

    The inability to do fast tab closing is exactly why I got fed up this summer and changed browser.tabs.closeButtons to work exactly as it did pre-Firefox 2.0. I typically do not make many changes through about:config.

  5. User Grav­atarJames said,

    12.11.09 at 6:35 am

    I agree with David Hammond, that’s pretty much my use cases – I also use middle click rather than trying to fiddle around with the little buttons

  6. User Grav­atarMoises Machado said,

    12.11.09 at 8:35 am

    @J. the reason for the close button be on the right is that a close button on the left would leave blank space on the left when serial-closing tabs at the end as it leaves blank space on the right when serial-closing at the start of the tab bar ( and have the first tab move around when closing other tabs is horrible)

  7. User Grav­atarJim B said,

    12.11.09 at 9:19 am

    I often end up closing a number of tabs in a row. Say I’m reading an interesting web page with many links embedded in the text. I don’t want to interrupt my flow of reading, so I will open tabs in the background if the link seems potentially interesting. After reading the article, I then flip through all those referenced links. In many cases I can scan thethe page briefly and decide to close it as not sufficiently interesting.

  8. User Grav­atarNuss said,

    12.11.09 at 10:11 am

    Just like Colby Russell above, I have the browser.tabs.closeButtons set to 3 in Firefox. I actually don’t use the close button most of the time, though. I middle click on the tab I want to close (why on earth would I want Dashboard launching from my mouse). But anyhow, I often – and by often I mean several times a day – close a couple of tabs at the same time. And there’s always the cmd+W, right at your fingertips.

    I’ve accidentally closed too many tabs using the default behavior in my life, and that’s probably why I don’t want close buttons on the tabs at all. I do think the Chrome no-resize approach looks great for those who want them. But the close buttons could just as well have been placed on the left on the Mac version.

  9. User Grav­atarThomas Jones said,

    12.11.09 at 10:45 am

    I actually do this sort of thing fairly often (that is close a bunch of tabs in rapid succession), often I open several search results, glance at them then close them.

    There are several other times I do this, but I can’t remember the exact use case, but I do it enough that I noticed chrome’s behavior and liked it.

  10. User Grav­atarSmokey said,

    12.11.09 at 2:49 pm

    David Hammond: Thanks for providing those use-cases. It’s interesting that both you and James (as well as Nuss) use middle-click instead of the close button, though. (Middle-click to close is a whole other UI grammar violation ;-) that’s not for this post.)

    Jim B: Aren’t you accessing those background tabs from left to right, i.e. starting from the tab you were reading when you openend them? Or do you go all the way to the right end of the tab bar and scan a tab, close it, scan a tab, close it, and so forth, in reverse? I open lots of tabs in the background while reading other tabs, but I almost always handle them in the order opened, whether they’re closed quickly or not, and an always-in-the-same-spot close button on the right wouldn’t add any benefit.


    Why shouldn’t a browser handle serial closing of tabs gracefully?

    It should, if the benefit outweighs the cost. In this case, my assertion is the particular type of serial tab closing Google has optimized for is uncommon, and that on Mac OS X the cost of violating the UI grammar (thereby appearing to be another bad port instead of a first-class Mac application), as well as the engineering effort expended (which could have been better directed at other areas of Mac OS X integration, for instance), are not worth the marginal benefit that the feature provides.

    …doing it the Chrome way no one get annoyed, ever. […]

    PS. There is no reason for right close button on mac other than to annoy Gruber.

    No further comment required. ;-)

  11. User Grav­atarLuka said,

    12.11.09 at 2:54 pm

    I for one find this tab closing behaviour the second biggest advantage of Chrome over Firefox (after the startup time).

    Not everyone uses the browser the same way, so please don’t just base decisions on your own experience.

    I am actually surprised (and also disappointed) that Firefox did not yet copy this great feature of Chrome, while they’re planning to copy most of the look of the Chrome UI … (which I don’t personally think is better … quite the contrary)

  12. User Grav­atarSmokey said,

    12.11.09 at 3:56 pm

    Luka: I’m well aware not everyone uses a browser the same way, which is why I was asking what the use-case was for closing a bunch of tabs from the right without moving the mouse. For all of my years in browser development (which, granted, are fewer than most of the Google Chrome developers), prior to David Hammond’s comment I had never heard any explanation of the reasons why one would want to close tabs in that manner, only that people liked to do it. ;-)

    It’s important to keep in mind that there’s a cost to everything—every feature, every setting—so it’s important to evaluate the reasoning behind a feature/setting, the number and type of users who “need” a feature/setting, and so forth, when deciding what to implement and what not to implement, and even how to implement it. There may actually be a better way, either in cost or usability, to help users accomplish the task they want to accomplish than the way the users themselves suggest.

  13. User Grav­atarAlex said,

    12.11.09 at 4:11 pm

    You bang on about the close button on the right side being a “Mac UI grammar violation”. Don’t you think it’s a bit narrow minded to call in the UI police here?

    Think e.g. about the “Erase search text” button that pops up in the right side of the search field in Apple’s own products (Finder, Safari, iTunes, …). This is a “close button” of sorts – would you also say that it should be on the left side for consistency?

    And what about tabs themselves? By your argument, shouldn’t we use a traditional MDI user interface on Windows, to stay consistent with Microsoft user interface guidelines?

  14. User Grav­atarLuka said,

    12.11.09 at 6:19 pm


    Yeah, you’re certainly right that there’s a cost for everything. Still, I do find this Chrome feature very convenient (and I found the Firefox way a inconvenient even before Chrome came out).

    About *why* I close many tabs: When needing to check several pages, sometimes it’s just faster to open them all at the same time, then check them one by one. This way it’s not necessary to wait separately for each page to load before being able to check them.

    Now the truth it that why exactly I close them at the same time rather than one by one after checking them I do not know. To be honest I did not pay very much conscious attention. But I did certainly notice that it happens.

    Another, more common reason why I close many tabs at the same time is simply that sometimes there are too many of them, and I want to get rid of some to clean up… If I only want to keep one tab, then I use Right click -> close others. But if for some reason I need to keep several, then I just close the unneeded ones. Tabs tend to get clustered by related content, so those that I close are usually next to each other.

    I don’t really use the close button, I mostly prefer middle clicking, however, the shifting of buttons still makes it possible to keep close attention not to close the wrong tab.

  15. User Grav­atarSmokey said,

    12.12.09 at 1:31 am

    Alex: I’m not sure why one wouldn’t call in the Mac UI grammar police when one spotted a Mac UI grammar problem.

    As for the tab close button versus the search field’s cancel button, those are two entirely different actions. There’s a vast difference between cancelling a search (or filter) and closing a document (because tab contents, like window contents in document-based applications, are documents; Safari makes this very clear in its AppleScript dictionary, where document is the all-purpose term for “current web page” and where, prior to Safari 4, “tab” wasn’t even a term). The fact that the similar glyphs perform two separate functions argues for putting them on different sides, to help the user differentiate: this glyph on the left side makes the document and its container go away, while a similar glyph on the right side just cancels filtering.

    As for Windows, I’d hope that Google would follow whatever interface guidelines exist for Windows, too, but this post isn’t about Windows. ;-)

  16. User Grav­atarPeter Kasting said,

    12.12.09 at 3:55 am


    As one of the designers (though not the primary one) who had a hand in Chrome’s tab closing behavior, here are a few bits:

    * Serial closing of tabs is used by an enormous number of users (including many team members). It is quite common in scenarios where users have opened several tabs related to a single task, and are ending the task. While it’s also possible to pop open a new window for a task, or drag tabs out to create one, most users don’t go through this extra step. Another common scenario is when users have opened a large number of links as a “to-read list” from e.g. an RSS reader or news aggregator, and are finished reading them; sometimes users will have closed the tabs as they go, but not always, especially if (similarly to the first case) the pages are in some way related.

    We tried to optimize both closing from the right and from the left (or middle) because users prefer one or the other depending on whether they’re stack- or queue-based readers. (Interestingly, this same distinction often determines whether users want newly opened tabs to take focus by default or not. We’ve avoided inserting an explicit option to control this behavior but users can control it via modifier keys while opening the links.)

    * Whether the close button is on the left or right side of a tab on the Mac had nothing whatsoever to do with serial closing behavior. It was 100% an aesthetic decision. Putting tab close buttons right next to favicons made tabs look unbalanced and confused targeting. Working around this by removing favicons dropped too much information on the floor. One of our Mac people even confessed to liking this arrangement because “now window close is on the left and tab close is on the right and it’s easy to train my muscle memory” or something to that effect.

    Yes, this is atypical for Mac UI. On every OS, we elected to defy convention if we felt there was sufficient justification. Some cases required more justification than others. This particular one has not been very contentious; a small number of OCD users (and I say that with love because I am one) complain and no one else cares much. Things like the amount of space above the tabstrip or whether clicking in the address bar selects all have been more contested.

  17. User Grav­atarPhilippe said,

    12.12.09 at 3:57 am

    Smokey, like you I was a little puzzled by the effort deployed for that close-tab button. But I routinely close tabs from the keyboard, after reviewing their content. I did find some positive aspect to the G Chrome behaviour: it avoids in all cases that the pointer comes to rest on the ‘new tab’ button and accidentally open a new tab – something that has bitten me more than once with a default config of Firefox/Minefield (do I need to mention I intensely dislike the placement of that new tab button ? it is neutered in my normal profile).

    Something I haven’t seen mentioned,but I was under the impression that G Chrome also had a very slight delay before closing a second tab. I have the feeling there is a very short moment (in ms) during which the button is non functional. That would avoid the accidental closing of a tab by ‘double clicking’, I think. Or maybe I’m just too slow with a mouse… a real possibility.

    (oh, and one more for the Mac UI police. The close button on the last/only tab should be disabled or hidden. That is the default on all Mac apps; even Firefox finally implemented this after I filed a bug)

  18. User Grav­atarSmokey said,

    12.12.09 at 3:38 pm

    Peter Kasting: Thanks for a response from inside the mind of Google. ;-) My mind still boggles at the fact it’s so common to open a bunch of tabs, read them, and then leave them without closing until later. That said, it’s definitely a nice optimization for those users.

    Thanks also for ending the speculation about the tab close button. I’m familiar with the aesthetics issue; in feedback about Camino’s tab UI, it runs a very distant second to complaints that we have site icons at all (which is to say we hear it about once a year). Since you seem to be saying that the tab closing behavior optimization didn’t require the close button positioning, I think there’s even less to support putting it on the wrong side; I don’t think the aesthetic issue is strong enough to warrant violating the Mac OS X UI grammar.

  19. User Grav­atarMark said,

    12.13.09 at 6:59 pm

    I do find myself closing several tabs in a row (but not all of them) and for this reason do appreciate the extra polish of Google’s behavior.

  20. User Grav­atarJames said,

    12.14.09 at 11:16 am

    My preference for always having the close button at the top right and not on individual tabs is muscle memory – I can go there and close the tab instantly, rather than having to look at the tab bar, work out which tab is active then move the mouse to there.

  21. User Grav­atarJohn said,

    05.12.10 at 9:02 pm

    Chromium build with tab close buttons on left


    Comment 116 by drew.ramos, May 11 (41 hours ago)
    Thanks for the comments! Here are some download links: http://www.filesavr.com/chromium43024 (build of
    revision 43024, this is the one I use since it looks like the current Chrome for Mac beta, omnibox-wise) and
    http://www.filesavr.com/chromium46672 (build of revision 46672, fairly close to the latest dev build).

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