Apple is responding to user complaints and feedback about the controversial changes to the Safari mobile browser with today’s launch of iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 beta 4. The new Safari design first introduced at WWDC had moved the tab bar (URL bar) to the bottom of the screen — a fairly radical change for one of the iPhone’s most used apps. It was meant to make the controls easier to reach, if using a phone with one hand. But critics said that the change made other often used features — like the reload button or Reader Mode — harder to find and use, impacting the overall usability of the mobile browser itself.
To Apple’s credit, it’s clearly been listening to the feedback.
In the pre-iOS 15 design, the tab bar sits in its traditional spot at the top of the screen, with an easy to access Reader Mode button (the double A’s) on the left and the reload button on the right. At the bottom, you’d find the forward and back buttons, a share button, reading list and tabs buttons.
The iOS 15 design did away with all these useful access points to commonly used features, favoring the reachability of the tab bar over everything else. Instead, it used a three-dot “more” menu to hide everything else that you may want to do when browsing the web — like reload the website, share a link, view the page in Reader Mode, save an article to read later, and so on. The list of actions that could be taken grew to over 20 items long, as a result.
On Apple pundit John Gruber’s The Talk Show podcast, he noted the new design wasn’t even popular inside Apple in the weeks leading up to the Safari announcement at WWDC. The internal sentiment among some was that the new design may look cool, but wasn’t all that usable, he claimed.
TechCrunch’s Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino, who had joined as a guest on the July 21 episode, agreed that in theory, the idea of having less on the screen was a good idea. But in practice, it just didn’t work.
“When you actually use it, you realize that it actually clutters the screen more and makes it a little more confusing,” he said. “And it doesn’t give you much more screen real estate unless you take action — like scrolling — which makes it kind of weird.”
With the beta 4 update, Apple is trying to fix some of the issues that arose from this change in its new betas.
For starters, it has re-added a Share button to the tab bar and put additional controls under that menu. Sharing links is probably one of the most common tasks for web users, so it makes sense to put the button back in a place where it only takes one tap to use.
There’s also once again a reload button in the tab bar next to the domain name, though it’s a bit smaller compared with prior versions.
Meanwhile, a Reader Mode button will appear in the tab bar when Reader is available, and it can be accessed with just one tap.
The tab bar will also now minimize when you’re interacting with buttons on websites. Before, it had gotten in the way, causing usability issues where website buttons remained unreachable.
On iPadOS 15, users will notice tabs now appear on a standalone tab bar below the URL by default. The streamlined, compact tab bar that displays the URL and open tabs in one line — which was introduced in iPadOS 15 — can be enabled in Safari Settings.
It’s worth noting that Apple isn’t the first to rethink the mobile browser design in this way.
A former Google Chrome design manager, Chris Lee, recently wrote about his work on a similar redesign for the Chrome mobile browser with a bottom URL bar that Google ultimately decided never to launch. He said the changes had also received mixed reactions at the time. The new design had gained a cult following in the tech community but mainstream users found the changes “disorienting,” he explained.
There is something to be said for the muscle memory with using an app that’s launched as frequently as Safari is. Although you may like the placement of the bar (I initially did!), over time, you may find that the changes made it more difficult when you wanted to do more than simply visit a website or swipe between tabs. And there’s a learning curve when it comes to remembering not to reach for the top of the screen for the shortcuts to various actions, too.
The Safari update is one of several tweaks arriving with the new beta releases, which also include a way to share focus status with select contacts, a new XL widget size (which Apple Podcasts on iPad is using), and other, smaller updates.