A post in Tom’s livejournal made me think a bit about how people use computers in the modern day.
Back in the Dark Ages (the 80’s and early 90’s), most PC’s ran single tasking operating systems that let you run (with only slight variation) one program at a time. You ran one program, when you were done with it, you closed it, and ran something else. This mindset set the stage for many people’s home-computer use.
By way of digression, I use the term ‘PC’ in the generic defintion, not in the context of an “IBM Compatible Computer”, after IBM co-opted the name in 1983.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Because of this “One screen, one application” approach, folks who continued working on Microsoft-based systems tended to stick with that model, while those who ‘branched out’ into alternate systems, such as the Amiga or the MacIntosh, or spent time with the early Unix X windows environments, tend to work on their machines in ‘multitasking’ modes. Running many applications at once, and flipping between them rapidly.
More recently, Windows systems have progressed to the point where it is feasible to actually run more than one application at once efficiently. But even with that improvement, compare how a Unix desktop user operates with the way a Windows user operates.
Unix (and by extension Linux, and even Mac folks) tend to run their desktops as a series of floating or tiled windows – each application running in its own window, but with the windows overlapping or tiling. On Unix, I personally set up multiple desktops – one having my ‘communications’ stuff (email, irc, etc), and another having my ‘work’ desktop (editor, compiler, reference materials). My experience watching Windows users tends to show them running the 2 or 3 applications they have available all in full screen mode – and generally it is in fact only 1-2 apps.
At the moment, in a ‘quick off the cuff’ setup on my laptop, I have 3 windows on a single desktop (shell, browser, and irc), with 1-2 small things in the dock (Jabber, etc). But even within my browser, I have 5-6 tabs open. To me, this is a minimalist setup. To a windows user, this would be ‘busy’.
I’m not making any value judgements here, just an observance. Much of this came to light watching people use Internet Explorer – a browser I find supremely inferior to Firefox, if only for Firefox’ ability to use Tabs. This (IMHO) quantum leap in browser useability is not as strong a draw to Windows users because, I believe, this mindset of ‘one app at a time’ softens the attraction to a tabbed interface. There’s just nothing for a Windows user to latch onto and say “Oh, I could see how that could help!” Whereas Unix and Mac users are all over it. (I’ll note that Safari, under OSX, has a tabbed interface).
I’m not going in for bashing Windows users here – to each user his or her own. But to me this does go to explain why Windows users haven’t flocked en masse to Firefox (though the adoption rate by Windows user is quite high all things considered – this mostly driven by the incredible insecurity of IE).