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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Stephen Hackett

WWDC 2021: Safari 15 to bring huge UI changes

When Apple’s annual updates ship this fall, Safari will be at version 15. Each new version of Apple’s browser is marked by security and performance improvements, but this year Safari is getting an all-new design as well.

Apple seems to be unhappy with the traditional browser design that includes navigation tools at the top, with websites being forced to live in their own view down below, and with Safari 15, it has blurred the line between browser and web content. This goes far beyond the mere splashes of color that Safari users may be used to seeing behind their navigation controls when scrolling a long webpage.

Now, the new tab bar takes on the color of the website, letting the entire window take on the personality of whatever website is visible. Apple says that this lets browsing feel more expansive, as the browser’s UI is now yielding to the content.

Safari 15

The color the tab bar takes on can be manually set by including setting a meta tag named theme-color in the head of the webpage.1 (Optionally, different values can be set for light and dark modes.) If this value isn’t set, Safari will choose its own color from the website’s background color or header image. Thankfully, Safari is smart enough to not use colors that interfere with UI elements like standard window controls in macOS.

Tab Groups are a new way to organize tabs and save groups of them for later. Conceptually, these are different from bookmarks in that they dynamically adjust as you open and close tabs and move to different webpages, but if you’ve ever used the trick to open a folder full of Safari bookmarks at once, it’ll feel a bit familiar. Tab Groups sync across iOS, iPadOs and macOS via iCloud. They are accessible via the sidebar in Safari and appear as a menu item in the tab bar itself.

To further minimize Safari’s UI, the tab bar and address field have been collapsed into one new user interface. When a tab is active, it expands into a full address field. Taken all together, Safari looks radically different than before:

Safari 15

On the iPhone, things get even weirder. The tab bar is now at the bottom of the screen and will minimize as the user starts scrolling. This new tab bar works a bit the Home indicator on a Face ID device. The user can swipe horizontally between tabs, like swiping between apps. A swipe up brings up an overview of open tabs and a UI to swap between Tab Groups.

Safari 15 on iPhone

Safari 15 brings big changes, and surely not everyone will be a fan. I, for one, think the expanded use of color is distracting, and the tabs-aren’t-just-tabs-anymore design confusing at times. I hope Apple might reconsider some of these more drastic design changes during the beta process this summer.


  1. Six Colors readers on Safari 15 will have already noticed. -J.S. 

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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