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Was Windows 10 'Sets' doomed to fail from the start?

Microsoft has finally commented on the current whereabouts of Windows 10's tabbed apps feature, known officially as "Sets," after months of silence regarding the future of the feature. Sets was put into testing in early 2018, before being pulled from preview builds just weeks later. Up until now, the only official comment on the matter was that Sets was being reworked internally and that it would make a reappearance in the future.

The future (or lack thereof) of Sets

That initial comment came about a year ago, so this week's updated statement is somewhat a breath of fresh air ... but it's also very typical Microsoft. The updated statement reads as follows:

We've taken Sets offline from WIP to continue to evaluate long term while also needing to prioritize other work tied to Microsoft Edge.

This statement falls in line with the announcement Microsoft made about Sets being removed from Insider builds a year ago, but this time there's a little bit more context, as some things Sets originally depended on have changed. With Edge moving to the Chromium engine, the initial work Microsoft did for Sets is no longer applicable, as Sets was heavily dependent on the old version of Edge. So Sets cannot exist anymore, not unless Microsoft rebuilds it.

The question now, of course, is should Microsoft rebuild it? I think the answer is no. Sets as a feature was unique, grouping not just websites but apps under the same windows. I worry this would have been too confusing to users, who expect tabbed interfaces to simply open another instance of the same app.

In fact, when rumors emerged yesterday that Microsoft was shelving Sets, I received many tweets talking about how they were happy that Sets wasn't happening anymore. Sets had a learning curve, as it's weird to have apps and websites open under the same window when they're unrelated.

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While I personally liked the idea of Sets, Windows users hate change. Sets would have changed the behavior of app windows and how users interact with them. There's a reason Windows 10 looks about the same as it did when it first launched, and that's because Microsoft doesn't want to upset users by introducing a change that makes them feel like they have to get used to or relearn the stuff they use every day. Because of this, Sets was always doomed to fail.

What was Sets trying to achieve?

If we think about Sets in the grand scheme of things, what exactly was it trying to achieve? On the surface, Microsoft described it as a productivity feature that made it easier to organize your workflow and desktop so that you could group related apps and websites together and save or restore them whenever needed. These "sets" would sync with Timeline and be restorable across devices, and even "pinable" to the Start menu and taskbar.

It also made websites feel like apps, as they were intertwining themselves with installed apps. In a tabbed interface, you couldn't really tell the difference between what was a website and what was a local app, because all the tabs were treated the same. This system works well on an OS like Windows Lite, less so on Windows 10 desktop.

On a deeper level, Sets was Microsoft's attempt at forcing users to use Edge. Since Sets was tied heavily to the Edge browser, whenever the user pressed the new tab button, instead of opening another instance of that same app, it would take you to a beefed-up Edge start page with access to not only websites but your installed apps and recent Office documents.

A way forward for Sets

Windows 10X Shell

Windows 10X Shell (Image credit: Windows Central)

It's not all doom and gloom for Sets, though. There are a couple of ways forward for this feature, assuming Microsoft is willing to put the work in. The first of which is making Sets exclusive to Windows Core OS and Microsoft's Windows Lite plans. I've been told since the beginning that Sets had a significant presence on Windows Lite, and I think Sets makes much more sense there than it does on Windows 10 desktop.

Windows Lite has been designed from the ground up with a new user experience in mind, putting web apps and store apps front and center. On a platform that's primarily store- and web app-based, Sets fits in very nicely. And since Windows Lite is a new OS, it doesn't have to worry about existing users being upset that their familiar user experience has changed.

I've heard that Sets on Windows Core OS was already a little less tied into Edge, so perhaps the work getting Sets to function standalone isn't as difficult as it is on Windows 10 desktop. Either way, I really hope we see Sets continue in Windows Lite.

So that's one way forward, making Sets exclusive to Windows Core OS and Windows Lite, and then leaving Windows 10 desktop alone. The other way they could do it is change up Sets altogether, getting rid of the Edge integration and simply changing its behavior to open another instance of the same app when pressing the new tab button.

This would simplify Sets, and if Microsoft really wanted, it could add an advanced option for users that enabled the grouping capabilities that old Sets was capable of. This version of Sets could be introduced on desktop as well as Windows Lite, as I think it's a much more approachable system for existing users. Everyone knows how a tabbed interface works typically, and the way Sets was doing it originally was not that.

What do you think?

I believe the initial iteration of Sets was going to fail on Windows 10 desktop. It's a great idea for something like Windows Lite, but on a platform that already has an established user base, which hates change, introducing a new way of working would have been a big problem for most people.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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Zac Bowden
Zac Bowden

Zac Bowden is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. Bringing you exclusive coverage into the world of Windows 10 on PCs, tablets, phones, and more. Also an avid collector of rare Microsoft prototype devices! Keep in touch on Twitter: @zacbowden.

  • I would very much like the ability to associate files from different applications together in a "Set" or "Project." I may have 5, 10, or more projects active at a time, and need to pull together files and work from lots of different places (web pages, Excel and Word documents, OneNote pages, To-Do activities, Outlook e-mails, etc.). Some of these may overlap (e.g., I might use the same Excel file with some financial info in several of the Projects, so these shouldn't be limited by a one-to-one relationship. Some have suggested to just save the files together in a folder, then open that folder in Explorer. The problem with that is, exactly as shown in the MS video included with this article, if the file is on another OneDrive or SharePoint location or if it's just a web page link, then storing in an Explorer folder isn't an option (or at least not an easy one -- I suppose you could save URLs and links to other drives as shortcuts). Or if you want to include To-Do events or specific OneNote pages within a larger Notebook, those don't store in Explorer. For me, the main benefit would be the ability to Save/Close and then reopen all of the associated files together. Sets appears to provide this, so I really hope this becomes available to us on the Desktop. I care more about that bundling than anything else, so a different UI would be fine with me, as long as it preserves that connectivity between disparate files and applications that I can group however I want. I would think of these files as being unified as a "Project" rather than a "Set," but that's just semantics and I don't really care what they call it. I suspect MS can't call them Projects, because they already sell the MS Project as a powerful project management tool. This would also be a powerful boon to MS Teams users -- Teams is awesome, but it suffers from a lack of tabs (only one view possible at a time) and files are stored in a corresponding SharePoint/OneDrive directory. If it could instead/also store what are effectively links to related documents, without requiring that they all be stored together in the Team SharePoint directory and auto-open all the related documents in their own tabs in Teams, that would make Teams MUCH MORE POWERFUL.
  • I agree with this. One thing I liked from the KDE desktop environment was that you could leave your windows arranged in their virtual desktops, shut down, restart, and everything would be (almost) back to where you were. Windows isn't there yet, and what you're talking about here would probably be even better.
  • You can hibernate Windows. Everything comes back exactly where it was. I do this every day. I only shutdown a couple times per month.
  • I use that on laptops regularly to cut power without losing my work also. Great feature. That's a very different function though, and I almost never use it on my main desktop, unless power fails and the UPS can't last until it comes back. Hibernate helps with sort of the opposite goal of Sets: it lets you cut power without closing any programs. What I'm after is the ability to shut down programs, fully reset the computer (e.g., after an OS update or a problem best fixed by a restart) and have the OS recall what documents go with each other together in a Set or Project so that all of them can be reopened on command, possibly days or even many months after the last time they were opened. Currently, I often spend several minutes trying to find and re-open relevant documents when I return to that project. Sets would have been a HUGE time saver for me, if it works they way I imagined (I never actually used it). I wouldn't want to have 50+ documents and web pages open at the same time, but I typically have 50+ (maybe 100+) documents and web pages I'm using across many projects at the same time. Ideally, with Timeline, I could also pick up on another computer (I move between 3 regularly).
  • I think Sets would be good if integrated in the Timeline view and open as a new desktop, not all tied together in a browser like environment. I want to have docs side-by-side and the browser complicates this. Opening in a new desktop keeps clean and only the set is present in your view.
  • I would definitely want it tied into to Timeline, so I could move back and forth between my laptop and desktop computers, but I wouldn't want it limited to a particular desktop. I'd want to be able to open the associated files alongside whatever I currently have open on my currently active desktop.
  • In a lot of ways virtual spaces serve the same purpose. Collecting multiple application states centered around a task or activity. I can see how sets would have some fundamental usability challenges in how a set might present itself in the task bar. Microsoft can leverage work done towards sets in allowing users to "resume" their work in different spaces. It's hard to imagine timeline to have much value without some way to aggregate application states and documents in productivity contexts.
  • Stardock did it earlier, better and broader (because it's on W7 and 8.1 too!): For productivity, the best 5 bucks (it's on sale at the time of writing) you can spend.
  • Another mistake by Microsoft, if they wanted sets to work right and be excepted, they needed to do it right from the beginning. Meaning, figure out how they wanted it to work, put a plan in place across the Windows ecosystem, implement the needed API's, then make the UI changes. Not make the UI changes with kind of an idea of what is wanted, then try to make the API's while the whole thing falls apart.
  • Like most things Microsoft, Sets would have been poorly marketed, poorly documented, and poorly integrated into W10 in any real meaningful sense that would be apparent to most end users. MS had the lead in cross-device syncing and a coherent ecosystem, and failed to market all that could have meant to users, and now they have lost their lead.
    Had MS shown all the ways in which WP integrated and synced seamlessly with W10, shown the public the advantages, and maybe provided free Windows Phones with certain PC purchases, adoption might have been faster and broader. But no.
    They come out with products with no clear explanation of what those products are for, or what they are capable of, without the verbiage being buried in corporate buzz-speak.
    The Surface line is the only thing that has been successful. mostly due to design, and less about capabilities. Not to say its not capable (I own 2 and support a dozen others), but the adverts show the public "this looks cool, and you'll look cool using it."
  • I agree with this. I've finally moved to an Android phone (Galaxy 10) and I'm constantly disappointed with how clunky and poorly thought out the UI is compared with Windows Phone. It takes me more time to do everything. Some of the MS Services help (like OneDrive so my photos auto-sync to my PC when I'm on Wi-Fi), but aside from all the apps (which are great to have now), that most modern Android phone is still way behind Windows 10 on Phone of years ago.
  • +1 for introducing it as a Windows Core OS/Lite exclusive. Good idea b/c those early adopters will be the most willing to give it a chance, provide feedback, and to live with the growing pains. If it actually proves to be anything close to a killer feature, then MS will have something real and more importantly, demonstrable, to help drive the new platform.
  • I think Sets as an exclusive feature to Windows Core OS is going to be a disaster. Sets makes Windows Lite unappealing to me. Maybe I'm wrong though.
  • I can see a future version of Sets, or at least the tabbed group of apps, being very useful in a touch or AR/VR environment. (It would certainly make switching apps on my Surface Pro easier in touch mode.) I really like the idea the video is conveying, but Microsoft doesn't have the best track record on educating consumers (meaning people who don't regularly read sites like this one) about, well, most things (Windows Phone, Windows 8, Band, Cortana, every feature update, etc.). After years of IT support, I can tell you, most people don't seek this information out, they have to be lead to it.
  • I like the idea, though importantly, I never tried it (nor really understood it!) But this sounds good to me: ".....Microsoft described it as a productivity feature that made it easier to organize your workflow and desktop so that you could group related apps and websites together and save or restore them whenever needed. These "sets" would sync with Timeline and be restorable across devices, and even "pinable" to the Start menu and taskbar." My hope was that with Sets I could put similar topics from Edge Favorites and the hard drive directory in one place. I am a bit frustrated by have two places to save things, webpages to Edge Favorites, and documents/photos/files and such into the hard drive directory. One place to see them all would be helpful. Could it do that as envisioned, anyone know? As for complexity for causal users, they can not use it. Or am I missing something? Bottom-line, a hope they bring it back when New Edge settles down, or in another configuration if need be. 2¢
  • I like the idea of sets, but it should have nothing to do with Edge. It's a UI feature and should be part of shell from beginning. Making it part of Edge limited its capability and also Edge's engineering quality is pretty low and immature, which would lead to same issue with sets. I think if Microsoft could think about and design sets again from user perspective, not from engineering prospective (which existing feature to leverage, etc.) or business prospective (improve Edge usage, etc.), it still could be a really useful feature for users.
  • Being able to speak only from (desktop) experience, the idea that is sets is the opposite of what I've been looking for for years. The office only recently switched to W10 from W7, and it's been a godsend to have Excel open sheets in different windows instead of opening in the same window per default! The idea of Word, Project etc. opening in the same window as well is not pleasant...
  • Sets would be a very good evolution for Windows.
    In my work, it would be the most relevant new feature, to be able to manage multiple files from different apps.
  • All people asked for in Feedback Hub was tabs in File Explorer. Then they go and make some new app\web tab amalgamation based on Edge, fail miserably, and here we are, still with no tabs in File Explorer. No one asked for Sets, no one wanted it. What a joke. When you stop listening to customers, they stop being customers.
  • You got the right point. Microsoft over complicated the task.
  • Does Sets really need Edge or any browser to be on? Imo, there is the browser for web surfing, the File Explorer for local folders and files and why not Sets for the apps from Microsoft Store?
    I don't think they have to combine Sets with the browser nor the File Explorer.
  • They could still make use of the code from Sets and open it for UWP and even for desktop Win32 apps through XAML Islands, so developers can use it as an framework for supporting tabs for their own apps. This way it also have some OS-level integration and not requiring developer to create tab support from scratch. Just remove the Edge integration since that is not needed anymore if Sets are only exclusive for each app.
  • Use groupy. It does the same functionality as Sets. It can get confusing when you see your browser in the same tab as Photoshop. But it makes it easier to work on multiple apps, at least for me. I reckon though that most people would have found it confusing.
  • Still pushing Edge OS, will never stop will never apologize... 😑