When Apple rolled out previews of the next versions of macOS, iOS, and iPadOS back in June, the most controversial aspect was the dramatic redesign the company gave to the Safari web browser. The new design sidelined much of the app's user interface, choosing instead to prioritize web pages. And criticism has been fierce.
The good news is, based on the most recent preview releases of macOS, Apple is treating that Safari design more like a first draft than a final edition. Apple may not be going back to the drawing board with Safari 15, but it seems to be committed to listening to the criticism and making changes before the new design arrives on everyone's devices this fall.
Safari isn't just another app. I would argue that the web browser is the single most important app on just about any device, and on Apple's devices, Safari reigns supreme. Sure, you can run other web browsers, but Apple would very much prefer all its users stick to Safari and would view any abandonment as a major embarrassment. The stakes are high.
With the latest beta releases, Safari on macOS has been left in a state that clearly can't be the finished product—it's a sign that Apple wants to show progress while still needing time to undo or tweak what it has done. On iPadOS, changes are in the works, but not visible yet. And on iOS, the new design feels a bit more entrenched but also still clearly in flux.
Why is this happening?
Apple isn't redesigning Safari to mess with us, or because its designers are bored and looking for a project to stave off the ennui of Silicon Valley living. What it's trying to do is get Safari's interface out of the way of the web pages it's displaying. The philosophy is admirable: We don't use web browsers because they're fun. They're a means to an end and that end is the webpage itself.
For this round of updates, Apple has tried to minimize Safari's interface as much as possible. Its designers have looked at every single interface element, from the tabs to the URL bar to every single toolbar item, and pondered if they could afford to hide, remove, or minimize those elements to give more space on the screen for the web page itself.
I think that Apple should be applauded for making the effort, not only because the vast majority of its customers are using screens that are at most 13 inches measured diagonally, but because Apple should always be striving to find better ways of doing things. I don't believe there's any class of app—from web browsers to email clients to text editors—that's a solved problem. We can always do better. I want the owner of the operating systems I use the most to actively attempt to make my devices work better.
That all said, Safari 15 misses the mark. And while the newest beta of macOS improves matters a bit, there's a whole lot more for Apple to do.
A broken work in progress
Separating the tab bar from the URL bar (top) makes the titles of tabs more readable than when they're merged (bottom).
While Apple's philosophy of minimizing user interfaces might be admirable, its priorities are completely out of whack. Displaying another line or two of a webpage is nice, but not if I lose my reload button, can't see the labels on any of my browser tabs, and can't even find the location of the currently active tab.
In macOS Monterey beta 3, Apple has made one change that is a huge step in the right direction. It's reverted its decision to merge the address bar and tabs into a single interface row. Giving the tabs a little more space means each of them can display a bit more of the title of their webpages, which can dramatically increase legibility. (I fully expect this design to make its way to iPadOS soon, too.)
A close-up look at how tabs that don't need to share space with the rest of the toolbar (top) are more legible than those without (bottom).
Unfortunately, it's still a bit of a mess. Tabs don't display as tabs but as rectangular lozenges. It's almost impossible to tell which tab is currently selected—navigating among open tabs is extremely disorienting. I'd understand this if Apple had decided that browser tabs were bad, but Safari 15 also introduces a clever new feature called Tab Groups that encourages the creation of an increasing number of open tabs. Left hand, meet right hand.
I keep some of my key favorites in my Safari toolbar, and with Toolbar Favorites enabled, Beta 3 gets even worse. The favorites appear beneath the tabs, breaking the entire metaphor and making it even harder to connect the currently open tab with its content.
Some toolbar buttons, such as Reload and Share, have also reappeared in the latest beta. If making tabs illegible is Safari 15's biggest sin, hiding all functionality under a single junk-drawer of a menu was a strong second place. On the iPad, the Share menu is incredibly important and yet it was moved beneath a drop-down menu, requiring at least three taps to share anything. I'm glad it's back, but the decision to hide it makes me wonder if Apple's designers understand how people use these apps. And other important features are still buried deep down on the junk-drawer menu.
I also am not convinced Apple really has come up with a consistent story for how tabs work in Safari. Apple created Tab Groups, which sync across devices, but there's also a tab group that's not a tab group, which essentially matches the current behavior of Safari. Links from other apps open in the not-a-tab-group. There's no way to tell Safari to open links in a specific tab group—and why isn't that default not-a-group a synced group, anyway?
A few years ago, Apple also introduced the concept of Pinned Tabs, so you could place a few favorite pages on your tab bar permanently. It was a good idea, and I have had three pages pinned on Safari ever since. In Monterey, Pinned Tabs still exist, but only in the not-a-group tab set. Why aren't they in Tab Groups? Why did they never show up on the iPad? If they're a dead feature, why are they still kicking around? I have no idea.
Healing a self-inflicted wound
If you take a look at the calendar, you might be surprised to find that August is rapidly approaching and that Apple's summer of betas is nearing its end. But the truth is, iOS and iPadOS probably won't need to be finalized until September, and macOS could wait a bit longer than that. If the changes in the third betas of these operating systems are any indication, Apple is moving quickly to make changes. I want to be hopeful about that while also recognizing that the work-in-progress that is Safari in Monterey beta 3 is pretty awful.
Still, it's a good sign that Apple is listening and now seems to be committed to making changes. But let's be clear: this didn't need to happen. I appreciate Apple's ambition, but I'm troubled that someone looked at the state of Safari 15 and thought it was a project worthy of being displayed on stage at the WWDC keynote and used as a bullet point in the promotion of Apple's latest operating systems. It's up to Apple to clean up its own mess. If it doesn't, then its users will suffer this fall.