The Day the Skeuomorph Died: Amazon Phases Out a Bit of Web History

The last vestige of the last tab on Amazon.com disappeared yesterday. I didn't see anyone note its passing--the Kindle Fire, flashy and anticipated, apparently out-dazzled everything else--but the tab's death is sad, for with it went a distinctly Amazonian sensibility and a piece of the web's past.

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Amazon.com was one of the earliest websites to scale, and so it was also one of the first to attack a number of web design problems. When it branched out from its book business, for example, it needed to give users a sense both of where they were within the site and how to move quickly between its sections. The solution was a skeuomorph: a symbolic design cue that helps the user by imitating an element that, in an older product, used to be necessary.

That is to say, Amazon.com started using tabs.

Amazon's tabs were compact, concise, and color-coded. Steve Krug said it best in his web usability book Don't Make Me Think: "Amazon was one of the first sites to use tab dividers for navigation, and the first to really get them right."

Amazon got a lot of other things right early on, too. It used "vivid, saturated" colors (Krug's words)--a navy, a muddy green, and an orange-infused ocher--which looked distinctive on every screen (these were the days of the CRT). For its main font, it chose Verdana, an elegant, chunky face which was one of the first fonts both Mac and PC users could obtain for free. Its design had the brashness, homeliness and charm of the early web.

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Amazon's kept that charm over the years. Eventually it dumped its row of tabs (there was an entertaining two-row version near the end), but it retained an orange, label-like vestigial feature in the top-left corner that read "Shop All Departments." And while the muddy green eventually vanished too, the orange and blue stayed: at the beginning of the week, both were visible at the top of the homepage.

The version of the homepage which became visible to some users yesterday--the version that greeted them even before Jeff Bezos took the stage--has dumped that quasi-tab and replaced it with a drop-down menu and search bar. The only ochre left on the homepage is in a few accents in the top navigation bar and in the smiling arrow beneath Amazon's logo. And the navy and Verdana must be living in fear: they lurk in captions and subheads, gone from the main body of the site.

There's a lot of geek trust in Amazon, and I think that's partly because it looks--looked--like the web of yore, the web of my childhood, a text-filled bazaar all saturated and skeuomorphic and satisfying. Last year's Kindle felt like a physical extension of that aesthetic, with its big green-gray body and pleasing plastic buttons ready for mashing.

But the site's all white and glossy now, like the new devices. Amazon has unified the look of its retail products and its homepage, but in doing so, it's left behind the old-school web feel that was a bastion of its brand. The new Amazon.com: it's clean, it's simplified, and it could work for any department store. It's almost as if the Amazon homepage went on a pilgrimage to attain Apple levels of simplicity, but got lost somewhere near Kohl's County.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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