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November 28, 2017

Where was I? Timeline puts your Windows desktop right back the way you left it

by John_A

Windows Timeline is a new feature coming to the Microsoft desktop (at last!) that should make organizing your desktop much easier. It will eventually be paired with the freshly announced Sets, a promising way to group associated items from your history so you can instantly restore any project you’re working on — the windows you were looking at, the apps you had open, the websites you forgot to bookmark, and more.

Both are the culmination of two to three years’ work, and they couldn’t quite make it into the Fall Creators Update. They are logical upgrades, and exciting for Windows enthusiasts; still, Insiders may need to curb their enthusiasm. While the Timeline feature is rolling out to all Insiders in the next Fast Ring build, Sets won’t appear but for a lucky few.

People do a lot of things with their laptops. We think there’s an opportunity to organize it better.

As part of a unique new approach to testing features like Windows Sets, Microsoft will roll Sets out to only a limited subset of Windows Insiders. Insiders are serious fanatics, folks eager for the latest and greatest build regardless of the potential problems and bugs that might crop up from freshly developed, untested developer code. They’re dying for stuff like this. Many will have to wait. There’s a strategy beyond this plan, of course: It lets the company measure who’s happy with the feature, and who’s more productive with it. But it’s guaranteed to frustrate people.

Getting in sync with Timeline

Timeline is a re-think of what a computer is used for. People used to be concerned with “storage” — organizing files into folders, backing them up to specific locations, on specific devices. Today, with computing spanning laptops, tablets, phones, and game consoles, the specific storage location and folder a file sits in is far less relevant. What matters is “when” instead of “where.” As in, “last night when I was working on that new campaign, I had these windows open.”

Windows Timeline lets you move back in time, regardless of which device you’re using, thanks to Cortana on Android and iOS (the virtual assistant already helps tie the platforms together for sharing reminders, and lets you see Android notifications on Windows 10 machines). Basically, people do a lot of things with their laptops. Microsoft think there’s an opportunity to organize it better.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because time-based features have appeared before. Windows lets you restore individual files or your entire OS to an earlier point in time if you accidentally deleted some key stuff, or mucked up your computer. So does MacOS, thanks to features like Time Machine and Continuity. Chrome, and other browsers, can automatically restore your tabs when you open a new window, and various extensions can track sessions between devices.

The interface is minimalist, but logical, and tied into the Task View icon that already sits next to Cortana and the Windows menu icon in your menu bar. Click it today, and you’ll see a zoomed-out view of your workspace, where you can create virtual desktops with different active windows that you can switch between.

Click it with the Timeline feature on and you’ll see a different experience. Multiple desktops still sit at the top, but the right side of the screen has a scroll bar with times and dates. Microsoft’s algorithms will even tease out six “hero” activities it thinks are the most important, based on minutes of use and other factors. These appear with thumbnails, making it easy to remember what you were up to.

Sets isn’t ready, yet sounds fascinating

Timeline looks promising on its own, and is proof that traditional desktop operating systems still have room for growth and innovation. Yet Timeline isn’t the end of Microsoft’s plan. The company’s engineers want to tie its time-based groupings into an interface that makes it easy to return to a project. The company has labeled this function “Sets,” though it’s so early in development that even the name is subject to change.

A Set is a group of related tasks. If you use the Timeline to re-open a Word document, Windows can automatically bring back the six browser windows you had open, the YouTube app and video you had paused in the background (you were being productive, right?), and a set of photos you were browsing.

Typically, Windows will ask if you want to restore them, but machine learning algorithms will be used to detect windows you always have open at once. Once it knows which ones belong together, it won’t even ask. Windows will just give it to you — like magic. If you don’t see what you want, you can search for a clock icon, which will let you restore a set of windows.

If you having a hard time visualizing this, we don’t blame you. Sets are innovative, and there’s little they can be compared to. When you think of it, though, it makes sense. You usually use a PC for a task – it might be as simple as shopping for Christmas gifts, or it might be as complex as coding new software. Either way, these tasks often involve multiple windows, even if they’re all sessions of the same browser. Timeline will already help you track what you did the day before, so why not break down that data into smaller, connected chunks?

We’re excited to see how Sets will turn out, but it’s very much a work in progress. As mentioned, it will only roll out to a small portion of Insiders initially. It also works only with UWP apps — those available from the Windows Store – to start, which limits their use. Microsoft plans to expand Sets to standard Win32 apps in early 2018. Eventually, support will come to Win32 apps with custom title bars. And much of the UI will be developed with the guidance of Windows Insiders.

That’s why some folks won’t get it at all. But hey, if you don’t see it, comfort yourself by knowing it’ll be more polished when you finally give it a try.

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