Windows Sets

Sunday 07 Jan 2018 10 pm

The humble browser tab.

It’s the back-bone of our internet browsing experience. Few of us may remember the days before multi-tabbed browsers became commonplace.

But in the not-too-distant future, Windows users will be using tabs not just in their browsers, but in their applications too.

Sometime (hopefully) soon, Microsoft will be releasing a new feature called “Sets”. These Windows Sets allow different applications to be grouped and tabbed in one application window - just like a browser.

The comparison is apt, so you probably have a good idea already how it works. If you’d like to see Sets in action, you can watch this video to see the tabbed magic unfold.

But Microsoft isn’t silly enough to force everyone onto this “next step” of application usage. For the “one app, one window” traditionalists, Sets won’t be locked in stone - they’ll be an optional feature that can be disabled.

The War For Your Attention

Some commentators note that Microsoft’s initiative is a return shot at its Chrome OS competitor, Google’s browser-based OS. The more cynical have labelled Sets a move to increase adoption of Microsoft’s Edge browser, which lingered at only 2% of worldwide browser market share in November 2017 (stat courtesy of StatCounter).

But why would Microsoft move to compete with a product like Chrome OS, that in itself has only a small market share?

While ChromeOS is an extreme example, it’s more to do with Google’s underlying tabbed design - not just for operating systems, but browsers in general.

The browser is the #1 app people use on today’s computers. They get their news from it.

They watch videos through it. They do their work in it - via cloud apps like Google Docs or Office 365.

Right now, I’m writing this with nothing but Chrome open. I’ve read a dozen sites, watched a couple of YouTube videos and will send an email (or Gmail) through the browser once its finished. This afternoon, I might wander through online forums and tonight, I’ll watch Netflix - all with Chrome.

In fact, the only other app I might open today is Microsoft Word, should I convert a document from Google Docs to send an actual file for review.

And I’m far from the only person who uses their browser (regardless of their browser of choice) like this.

By giving their apps the ability to group and tab, Microsoft is emulating one of the most popular concepts the browsers have perfected over the years. It gives people a “one-stop shop” to do everything they need without clicking or ALT-TABbing their way between 20 windows.

Many consider Windows Sets a "return serve" against the ubiquitously tabbed Chrome browser

Everything Old is New Again

The tabbed interface has been around long before web browsers.

According to Wikipedia, one of the earliest examples was in a word processor called WordVision, all the way back in 1982. Clearly ahead of its time, tabs wouldn’t re-surface until the 1990s. But it wouldn’t be until the 21st century - the age of Internet - that tabs would become “mainstream”.

Did you know the browser tab functionality wasn’t “invented” by Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer?

Long before the days of 3 or 4 major browsers dominating, the “wild west” Internet threw up dozens of niche, “home project” browsers for people to try. One of these was called NetCaptor, an Internet Explorer shell modified by a software developer.

The tabbed interface was introduced to users of that browser in 1998. And while NetCaptor has come and gone, the impact of tabs is stronger than ever.

Tabs revolutionised how users surfed the web - for both good and bad. But the biggest advantage was letting people explore a topic across a multitude of sites. For example, it’s exactly how I’m writing this article (currently 12 tabs open… and rising).

When Should You Expect Windows Sets?

That’s a difficult question, and the simple answer is: it’s still unclear.

Microsoft released Windows Sets for their limited “Windows Insiders” program last month. This means people are already using it (in what’s effectively a beta test) so the functionality has been completed to the point where it’s very usable.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll be grouping, searching or creating Sets anytime soon.

Introducing complex functionality like this isn’t easy, and one report has mentioned that the final version of the Sets functionality could still be years away.

In the meantime, we’ll cross our fingers and hope the next major release comes with a small tab icon on our favourite Windows apps.