The death of the Start menu: Microsoft's defense goes into high gear

Microsoft has written volumes about how we don't need a Windows 7-style Start menu in Windows 8 -- Microsoft is wrong

If you've played with the Windows 8 Developer Preview, you know that the old Windows 7 Start orb in the lower-left corner of the Windows desktop has been replaced by a black hole. Click on the black hole, and you're catapulted out of the familiar Windows desktop and into the new, improved, touch-centric Metro interface. If your users had trouble migrating from the XP-style Windows Start menu to the Vista/Windows 7 Start menu -- even now, millions of people use the old-fashioned Start -- you can just imagine what will happen when they click the new Windows 8 Start icon. You might as well engrave your help desk phone number on every Metro tile.

That change has upset a lot of people, so Microsoft has responded by producing volumes of material explaining why the death of the familiar Start menu will be a good thing -- really. In fact, Microsoft is providing statistics to show that this new approach is what you and your users need, by golly, even if you don't realize it. In a move designed to make any Windows support person see red, Microsoft has even given the Metro tiled touch interface a new name: the Start screen, as if it were a fitting progeny of the Start menu. Hey, don't shoot me. I'm only the messenger.

If you want to read Microsoft's side of the story, you can find it in three posts on the Building Windows 8 blog: "Evolving the Start menu," "Designing the Start screen," and "Reflecting on your comments on the Start screen." Be prepared for some heavy slogging -- the three posts come to about 40 pages of dense exposition, with more than 1,500 viewer comments. It's clear that Microsoft has decided to respond to user concerns with piles of justifications that comes down to, basically, "you will like it, whether you think so or not."

If I may be so bold as to paraphrase Microsoft's magnum opus, the gist of the argument against the dearly departing Start menu and in favor of the new touch-centric Metro tiled Start screen goes like this: The Start menu is cumbersome and old-fashioned, and an abundance of apps make the Start menu bulky, hard to navigate, and confusing. The Start menu's being used less frequently with each new version of Windows. Most people pin apps to the Taskbar, not the Start menu, and they use the Taskbar apps more and more.

Net result: The Start menu has become an inefficient way to launch apps that you don't use very often. By contrast, Windows Phone 7, er, the Metro tiled interface, uh, the Windows 8 Start screen is a new, colorful, alive "heads up display" that makes it easy to organize and group apps. It's easier to use the zoomable Start screen tiled interface, rather than the strict hierarchy of the Start menu. You can cram more apps on the Start screen than you would normally pin on the Start menu.

The blogs also give other reasons for Start screen superiority that I find specious, at best. For example, the Windows 8 team believes that the Start screen delivers better search results than the Start menu. I don't agree. While the Start screen shows pretty pictures, a search from the Start menu includes a lot of information that Windows 8 doesn't show, at least in this version. In addition, the Start screen approach to Search requires you to pick a specific search type -- Apps, Settings, Files, Email, Social Contacts -- in order to hook into the Contract search model in Windows 8. The new approach is different, decidedly prettier, undoubtedly faster, but not necessarily better.

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