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A tab in graphical user interfaces is a typically rectangular small box (usually containing a text label or graphical icon) associated with a view pane. When activated (e.g. by a mouse click), the view pane displays widgets associated with the tab. A single tab is obviously not useful, but a tab group comprising several tabs allows the user to switch quickly between different widgets (which are displayed in the view pane belonging to the tab group). The active (or foreground) tab is typically highlighted in a way that makes it seem to stick out of the rest of the tab group, though sometimes, only color or size changes indicate the currently selected tab. Since these share the same part of the window, it is not necessary to use scrollbars in order to fit more inputs and outputs on the screen than otherwise possible. While similar effects could be achieved e.g. by listboxes, drop-down lists, radiobuttons and pulldown menus, tabs are often employed to give the user interface a more "natural" look, by making the selection widgets (most often located directly on top of the view pane) resemble traditional card tabs inserted in paper files, or card indexes.
Tabs in modern GUIs at first became widely used to make option-laden dialog boxes easier to understand and navigate, by grouping similar or related options into one tab pane each. Some applications base their main interaction on tabs, using a tabbed document interface.
In the last few years, tabs have also become quite popular in web browsers, where they are used to switch between different webpages without having to switch top-level windows. Tabs are now supported by all major browsers except Internet Explorer, although tab-capable third-party extensions and front-ends to Internet Explorer are available. With the exception of Opera 4 and up, tabs in these browsers are orthogonal to top-level windows, which means they may be seen as a supplementary rather than competing way of opening numerous browser windows at the same time.
Numerous special functions in association with browser tabs have emerged since then, for example the ability to re-order tabs (e.g. in Opera and Konqueror, as well as Mozilla with suitable extensions), and to bookmark all of the webpages opened in tab panes in a given window in a group or bookmark folder (as well as the ability to reopen them all at the same time). Links can most often be opened in several modes, using different user interface options and commands:
- in a new main window
- in the same main window and the same page
- in the same main window and a new page, which is instantly activated
- in the same main window and a new page, which remains in the background until the user switches to it
Furthermore, the Mozilla and Mozilla Firefox browsers, along with a mouse gestures extension, allow the user to open several links in new background tab panes by pressing down a mouse button, dragging the cursor over all the links to be opened, performing the corresponding mouse gesture, and releasing the mouse button again. A fast computer and network connection are required in order to fully utilize this feature.
Tabs in browsers often seem to be either universally loved, or hated. Proponents argue that they can be used to improve navigation across a multitude of open webpages, while opponents hold that window manager features such as automatic grouping of windows of the same application provide all necessary functionality. Some proponents in turn feel that since these two feature sets can be used concurrently, there is no reason for a strict either/or stance.
Adobe Systems holds patents in the United States and Europe on tabs in general or certain uses of GUI tabs, which are widely held to be trivial patents. Also, some argue that there are hints for prior art, e.g. in text-mode user interfaces. Adobe has used these patents to sue Macromedia Inc. for employing tabs in its Macromedia Flash product. The case was won by Adobe, earning them $2.8 million of damages, however a countersuit initiated by Macromedia ended in a $4.9 million ruling at their [Adobe's or Macromedia's?] expense. The suits were then settled on undisclosed terms.