Windows Explorer needs tabs for working with multiple folders in the same window

A campaign for tabbed browsing in Windows Explorer.

Microsoft needs to add tabs to Windows Explorer in Windows 7. Windows Explorer is the software you use to see files on a PC. It's part of the operating system. Whenever you see a list of the files in a particular folder, that's Explorer. But there has always been one obvious feature missing from Windows Explorer: tabs!

Windows Explorer (Windows 7 example)

Tabs are the most convenient way of switching between pages within the same window. The "page" can be anything: a web page, the contents of a folder, the text within a file -- it is a universal principle. Yet the latest version, in Windows 7, lacks tabbed browsing. In Windows you can open folders in separate windows, or in the same window and use the back button, or use the folder list for local folders. But this is inconvenient. The modern user often needs to work with multiple folders open in Windows Explorer at the same time -- including local folders, UNC paths on networks, and directories on FTP servers.

Tabbed browsing can now be considered a standard feature in various types of software. Every modern web browser has tabs, including Internet Explorer 8. Tabs are worth having in Internet Explorer for good reasons, and exactly the same reasons apply to Windows Explorer. A lot of other Microsoft software has tabs too, e.g. in Word and Excel where they allow multiple files to be open in the same window. Indeed, Microsoft were pioneers in this area, leading the way with tab-based navigation within desktop software applications. Meanwhile, our old friend Windows Explorer has been neglected.

There has always been a close relationship in Windows between Internet Explorer, the web browser, and Windows Explorer, the file browser. But the former has now evolved and the latter lags too far behind. I remember when IE4 was released: Microsoft sent me IE4 on a CD with the software for MSN. It seemed to take-over the entire operating system (Windows 95) giving birth to a new and improved version of Windows Explorer which has hardly changed since then. So impressed was I by the concept that new features can be added to Windows Explorer, I submitted Microsoft's online feature-request form calling for FTP functionality in Windows Explorer or Internet Explorer "before some third-party software company beats you too it". (Netscape 4, the main competitor for IE in those days, had attempted to include very limited FTP functionality though it never worked for me.) It wasn't long before my wish was granted, and sure enough I can now type an FTP address into the Address bar. As soon as I finish writing this post, I'll be looking for that feature-request form again... So watch this space!

Perhaps Windows Explorer is a victim of its own success. When a piece of software does its job, it's easy to forget about it. By the same token, it's not surprising that Vista didn't catch on, when Windows XP did a good enough job (and for less memory and processing power.)

In these early days of Windows 7, there can be no doubt that it's time to give good-old Windows Explorer a well-earned face-lift. And I mean a real improvement in functionality; not just the cosmetic change it's had in Win 7.

The time has now come to add tabbed- browsing to Windows Explorer.

17 August 2009

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Tim Acheson (18 Aug 09, 23:50)

Post Script

The case for this is well demonstrated by the existence of third-party add-ons for the required functionality, which have been welcomed by the tech community. E.g. QTTabBar which is developed in .NET (Framework 2.0) and is tested in Windows XP (32-bit) and Vista. However, Windows 7 (32-bit or 64-bit) is not yet listed as a supported platform for any of these add-ons. I am currently using Windows 7 RC (64-bit) and won't be installing anything before I've provided meaningful feedback to Microsoft on the release candidate for their new OS.

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