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Having finally caught up to - and embraced - tabbed browsing in Internet Explorer, the ground could again be shifting for Microsoft.

Mozilla Labs has launched a competition challenging developers to re-invent the whole idea of tabbed browsing to help return to a clean and usable interface.

Tabs have become a mess as people spend a greater amount of time working and surfing in browsers, firing up more tabs that become hard to track, according to Mozilla.

The Labs Design Challenge Summer 09 is looking for ideas that help people create, navigate and manage multiple web sites within the same browser instance. Competition winners are due to be announced on July 8, 2009.

Mozilla Labs is the experimental wing of Mozilla, home to Firefox, which has been slowly nibbling away at IE's market share for years.

Tabs emerged in the late 1990s, and were initially adopted in the Mozilla Application Suite, Apple's Safari, and Opera during the early 2000s.

Tabs were a minor revolution for internet users because they meant that rather than having to keep opening new versions of your browser for each site you wanted to view, killing the machine's performance and exposing yourself to crashes, you could work within one browser.

It was just about that time - 2003 - when Microsoft began down playing the importance of the browser, suggesting there was nowhere really left for the browser to go. IE program manager Brian Countryman said there would be no more standalone versions of IE after the then planned IE 6 Service Pack 1. All future versions would be part of Windows. Countryman's scripted Q&A on Microsoft's site is no longer available, but you can read an extract here.

Firefox clearly changed that thinking and one of its features - tabs - debuted in IE 7.0 in 2006, and this spring, IE 8.0 introduced the ability to group tabs. This was Microsoft's take on addressing the growing tabs problem.

At the crux of the issue is tabs worked on slow machines, with dial-up internet connection where ten browser sessions was considered a lot, according to Mozilla.

"Today, 20 plus parallel sessions are quite common; the browser is more of an operating system than a data display application; we use it to manage the web as a shared hard drive. However, if you have more than seven or eight tabs open they become pretty much useless. And tabs don't work well if you use them with heterogeneous information," Mozilla Labs' site said.

You can find out more about the competition here. ®

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