Microsoft listened to complaining customers and reintroduced the Start menu in Windows 10. A wrong decision! The discussion in my recent post about the Start screen in Windows 10 and Tim’s text about the Windows 10 Start menu inspired me to write this article, where I summarize some of my claims and introduce new arguments for the Start screen and against the Start menu. In fact, I feel it is time to dump the desktop altogether.

Michael Pietroforte

Michael Pietroforte is the founder and editor in chief of 4sysops. He has more than 35 years of experience in IT management and system administration.

The Start menu debate ^

The debate about the Start menu and Microsoft’s to-and-fro strategy demonstrates the internal division of forces in Redmond. Many want to move ahead and leave the old Microsoft behind, but obviously there are also many conservative holdouts who are afraid to snub and drive away loyal customers. It is definitely more than just a discussion about the question of how apps should be started in Windows—it is a landmark decision.

The Start menu in Windows 10

The Start menu in Windows 10

First of all, I have no doubt that the majority of Windows users hate the Start screen, and many also dislike the Modern UI as such. However, the discussion here on 4sysops made it obvious to me once more that people don’t really know exactly why they dislike the new UI.

The Start screen in Windows 10

The Start screen in Windows 10

Barking dogs ^

I like Grant’s picture of barking dogs. Yes, many Windows users barked at Microsoft after the release of Windows 8. Dogs usually bark when they feel uncomfortable and when they are afraid. Humans are not that much different. The only difference is that humans have to explain their barking, and, if they don’t find a good explanation for their negative feelings, they start to invent reasons.

Typical reasons given against the Start menu are: “I have so many apps that I need to organize them in folders,” “I am much faster with the Start menu,” “The Start screen obliterates everything else on my screen,” “I use the time while an app starts to check the open apps on my desktop,” “I lose focus when I switch to the Start screen,” “The Start screen is an unnecessary context switch,” and so on.

I think some of these explanations are pretty close to the real problem with the Start screen, but many are just made up. (If you support one or more of these views, no offense. Prove me wrong in a comment below!) They are not made up in the sense of lies. Many users feel uncomfortable with the Start screen and don’t really know why. When you force them to give an explanation, they invent reasons that they truly start to believe once they are uttered. Of course, this a well-known psychological phenomenon and can easily be explained by how the human brain works.

This leads to the question of exactly why people feel uncomfortable with the Start screen and the Windows 8 UI. The easiest explanation is the claim that they fear change. We are living in a fast-changing world, and many have problems accepting this. Any additional change causes fear and is rejected. Humans and dogs bark when they feel fear. This is the simple explanation—the one I use often. However, in case of the Start screen, things are a bit more complex.

Style vs. functionality ^

One observation I made is that many iPad lovers hate the new Windows 8 UI. It is not that they are just Microsoft haters. They are working with Windows every day and they just want it to stay how it is. At least, this is what they say. However, the fact that they accepted the touch UI of the iPad shows that they are not afraid of change. Many Start screen haters can easily embrace new technologies.

So what is it, then, that forward-thinking people dislike about Windows 8? The first time I realized what went wrong with Windows 8 was when a friend of mine started complaining about her brand new Windows 8 laptop. She asked me to install Windows 7, which I declined because she wasn’t able to give a reason (not even a made-up one).

After her computer was upgraded to Windows 8.1 Update, I suddenly heard her say, “I like my computer now.” At first I thought she was talking about the hardware. I couldn’t believe that the Start button made her say this. And no, it wasn’t the Start button after all. She just discovered that she can have the same background on her Start screen as on the desktop. This was enough. She was used to the background picture, and the Start screen now felt to be more a part of the computer. The entire UI somehow looked more coherent. For the first time, she tried some of the new Windows Store apps.

Desktop background on the Start screen

Desktop background on the Start screen

I don’t want to say that setting the same background for the desktop and Start screen fixes Windows 8. The main problem about Windows 8 is that two different UIs live side by side. Of course, this point has been put forward many times, and many of the changes since the release of Windows 8 were an attempt to smooth the edges where the two UIs collide.

However, many of those changes focus on functionality. It appears Microsoft believes those made-up reasons that they hear from Windows users. The Start menu is the most typical example. But the real problem has little to do with functionality and productivity. It is all about the look and feel of Windows 8. Switching between those very different UIs makes people feel uncomfortable. It is like when you see someone wearing a checked shirt with striped pants. If you are not an eccentric person, you will think this guy has bad taste, and you will even start disliking him without exchanging a word.

Let’s dump the desktop ^

Microsoft is probably also quite aware of the design problem. However, with Windows 10, Redmond moves partly in the wrong direction. Instead of making Windows 10 look more like Windows 7, they should get rid of the old UI as fast as possible. Microsoft needs to dump the desktop! I strongly believe that doing so would have the same emotional effect on people. Once everything looks coherent, people will accept the new UI and they will also love the Start screen.

The Start screen is technologically superior to the Start menu simply because it uses the entire screen for an important task, such as searching for an application. Can you imagine searching in Google or Bing by using just a tiny space of your browser window? You can try just that in the Windows 10 Start menu. It’s awkward!

Having said that, instead of reverting everything back in Windows 10, Microsoft should move forward and tackle the next step in the transition to a new UI. It just doesn’t make sense to have two different kinds of spaces (desktop and Start screen) where users can place shortcuts to apps. Of course, backward compatibility is important. And future Windows versions have to support legacy desktop applications for a long time.

The solution to the context switch problem would be to keep the Start screen in the background whenever you start a legacy desktop application—that is, don’t switch the UI back to desktop mode. I am confident that, once the entire UI is coherent, at least the forward-thinking users will embrace the modern touch style.

The 20-year Start menu ^

It is not the first time that Microsoft has moved to a new UI. When Windows was introduced, I heard a lot of barking from DOS users and, when Windows 3.11 was replaced with Windows 95, the barking was even louder. In both cases, Microsoft wasn’t intimidated by the yowling and growling and just moved ahead with confidence. This was the main reason that Windows 95 became such a big success despite all its stability and performance issues. We are talking about Microsoft’s best times here.

Start menu – few changes since Windows 95

Start menu – few changes since Windows 95

In Windows 95, Microsoft put the new UI into the foreground. The old UI was only supported for legacy applications. You could start DOS applications in the first Windows versions and, in Windows 95 when Microsoft again introduced a new UI, you could still run old 16-bit programs. Windows 95 also supported a real-mode MS-DOS environment that allowed you to run DOS applications that had problems with the new UI. Of course, you could also run DOS programs in the new graphical user interface. It is important to note that the old “Start tool,” the DOS prompt, essentially disappeared in the new UI right from the beginning. All these workarounds because of compatibility problems would be much easier to accomplish today because we now have powerful virtualization technologies. It wouldn’t be a big deal to completely move to the new UI and still support legacy desktop applications.

A DOS application runs in Windows 95

A DOS application running in Windows 95

Ballmer made a big strategic mistake when he released Windows 8 without a flank-securing new Office version for the modern UI, as Gates did with Window 95 and Office 95. This alone would have silenced many critics because Microsoft would have made it unmistakably clear that this is the new way to go and that there is no way back to the old UI. This misstep can only be explained by the fact that the Office team didn’t really know what the Windows team was up to.

Windows 8 hodgepodge ^

Even worse was that the new UI was a mere byproduct to Windows 8, intended to make customers slowly get used to the Modern interface. This was exactly the wrong strategy. The real reason for all these complaints about Windows 8 is that those two different UIs just don’t fit together, and this makes users feel very uneasy. Steve Jobs would have said this hodgepodge of UIs is just tasteless. Never wear stripes and checks together. Never!

Now, you could propose that if Windows should have only one UI, why not get rid of the new one and stick with what we know? The answer is simple and well known. We now have new devices with new form factors that require a touch interface. Of course, Microsoft can’t neglect this market. The solution to use a touch interface on tablets and the old-fashioned Windows interface on PCs isn’t going to work either. It is a waste of resources for a software company that depends on a huge ecosystem to support two different kinds of operating systems with different user interfaces.

There is no doubt that the touch interface is superior to the old graphical interface, just as Windows was superior to DOS. Almost everything you can do with a finger can be done with a mouse. (The only exception is two-finger zoom.) Thus, it is possible to create a touch UI that can be conveniently used with a keyboard and mouse. However, you can’t build a mouse-centric interface that anyone would want to use on a tablet.

If Microsoft really reintroduces the Start menu in Windows 10, they endanger the future of Windows because it postpones once again the necessary (and admittedly hurtful) step to dump the desktop. There is absolutely no doubt that the future will be dominated by devices with touch interfaces. Microsoft must stop listening to barking customers and move forward with confidence. The only problem with Windows 8 was that it didn’t full-heartedly embrace the new UI; it was introduced with a shaky hand. Barking dogs only bite if they sense fear; they bite shaky hands.

What’s your view? Do we still need a desktop almost twenty years after Windows 95?

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39 Comments
  1. Dennis 5 years ago

    You wrote "The solution to use a touch interface on tablets and the old-fashioned Windows interface on PCs isn’t going to work either."

    Why won't this work? Apple has had great success in the last years with using separate operating systems for their mobile and "old-fashioned" platforms - each with its own UI.

    Why give up so much "desktop functionality", just for the sake of the tablet users having a unified user experience?

    OK you can call me "old-fashioned", but I still see huge disadvantages in this whole tablet thing, when it comes to replacing desktop workstations -which is Microsofts "old-fashioned" core business - right?

    Cheers

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  2. Michael Pietroforte 5 years ago

    V.D., maybe you don’t understand what I am saying because you base all your arguments on this wrong assumptions: “All users want is simplicity.” This claim can easily be refuted. I am a user and I don’t want simplicity. I prefer complexity because once I know how a complex tool works, I improve my productivity. This is one of the main reason why I don’t like Apple products. And yes, I received lots of money for criticizing Microsoft for reintroducing the Start menu. Want some of it?

    Dennis, are you prepared to pay twice as much for every Windows application you buy? Because this would happen if software makers have to support two Windows versions. And you are right, Apple has had great success in the past. Considering how fast Apple is now losing market shares, we have now further evidence that the Apple approach doesn’t work. I don’t think it at all that the PC will be replaced with tablets. What needs to be replaced is this old-fashioned Windows UI.

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  3. Tim T 5 years ago

    Considering the last post in this forum was December 2014, I found reading the article and subsequent comments interesting.

    There isn't anything Microsoft is offering that falls into the "must have" category for me. I don’t care if all my devices run the same OS, and it doesn’t matter if an app can run on any Windows 10 device. I don’t even use apps (or tablets or smartphones). I run real programs. I don’t want cloud integration. I refuse to buy anything from the Windows Store. I will never use Bing or Cortana. I don’t own an Xbox One and have zero plans to buy one. Who cares about Spartan? Until they can produce a functional holodeck, I'm not interested in holograms. Honestly, the live tiles make me angry. Windows 10 has nothing I need and plenty I dislike.

    But that's just me. I think most people that do want these things are already invested in Apple or Android, and it doesn't seem to bother them one bit if they have combinations of differing IoT ecosystems. So if Microsoft wants to lure users away from their established tech circles, they had better offer something outstanding users can't get anywhere else and can't live without. I don't see that happening any time soon. And I understand why they want a mobile first, cloud first ecosystem. They want to make even more money. And seeing all those XP and W7 users out there, not contributing to Microsoft's bottom line is really , really annoying.

    I don't know what will happen when Windows 10 is released. But it won't surprise me at all if adoption rates are underwhelming, even when the price of admission is free.

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  4. Dell 4 years ago

    I came to this post of my shock/horror that the Metro UI is in Windows Server 2012.
    I have just completed an hardware migration for Clients ERP Software to Server 2012 and its crappy Metro Interface.
    Can see why MS is failing if this guy is a MVP !! the man is totally deluded with his assertions of what should be, wonder what he thought of Vista ( especially the memory preload crap) or the touted Libraries win Win7 that have also thankfully dissapeared
    Of course People were not always happy with the Start Button, but one could easily change it,
    My first steps with any Win7 machine was to disable libraries, added back the quick launch and show desktop button to the left, I don't use pining in my work environment.
    Anyways back to the Metro UI, for me its juts crap for my work environment, which is laptop with 2 large monitors, In work I run 'Programs' not 'Apps' one cannot multitask with Apps and there is no APPS that I would use in work anyway.
    And to tout the 'Weather Tile' as an advantage, FFS, If I want to know the weather Ill look out the window. How can one get a simple list of their installed programs not app's with this Metro Interface.
    I will be like Mr MVP and presume to know everones preferences .. if the user is juts going to use device to read a mail or quick browse the net , it may be useful.
    Bad enough to force this Metro UI on Windows, but to force it onto Server edition is juts crazy.
    I see all the stuff pouting about how better it is for server admin, that may be true, but what are Servers used for, generally for running Enterprise Applications ( not apps ). I work in SAP and install, configure, maintain, and run SAP and its RDBMS whether it be Oracle/DB2/SQL etc and not its almost impossible to work with Server and Metro.

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  5. Dell 4 years ago

    Mr MVP says " Microsoft listened to complaining customers and reintroduced the Start menu in Windows 10. A wrong decision!"
    So its wrong to listen to your Customers ? keep running with that one ..
    My company recently introduced Red Hat Enterprise Linux as desktop OS, I was totally against it as It did not have the flexibility of Windows 7. But I am now using the RHEL OC as my primary OS now, and once I get used to it I will not be heading back to Windows, I dont need or use apps and dont like the Metro Interface and I also don't like trying to fit touchpady/mobile stuff into a desktop or laptop

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  6. mark 4 years ago

    Joe,

    Microsoft's so-called "wrong direction" was in removing functionality/features unnecessarily. Sure, some people like the full-screen Start Menu. But there was zero reason to keep end-users from customizing it. Maybe I would have hated it less if they'd made it look like an overlay? Or if I could have had it act like other Metro apps and take up half or 1/3 of the screen. Regardless, the only time I click "Start" is by accident. The apps I want are pinned to the start bar. Also, try using the Start Screen when you have a quad-monitor display (looks stupid) or when you have a 4K monitor. Really? Does it HAVE to take the whole screen?

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  7. Dave 4 years ago

    Nah.. I like having both. When using a mouse and keyboard (you remember those?) a task bar is the right tool for switching windows and launching frequently used pinned applications without losing visual and mental focus. For starting a new app windows excel enter is great. For less deliberate searches, the full(ish) screen interface of the start search screen is ok. For dumping a bunch of files du jour somewhere, I sometimes like the desktop (although windows E is nice too but good luck getting most people to use it) Placing and finding files in a touch interface like android tends to be a pain and app specific. No thanks. I have to say I never cared even a little for the tiles, actually, but they never got in my way. You call tiles effective use of real estate. I call it lowest common denominator thinking. Visual hunt and peck vs systematic scalable methods. I hate searching pictures. I find it slow and distracting and an extra thing to remember. "What color was that application's tile again?". Nothing beats a pure keyboard interface for efficiency. I do agree that all the complaints about 8 were dogs barking. None of the fluff amounts to anything important. The real feature improvements were significant.

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  8. tom 4 years ago

    I don't want my workspace to be cluttered with unnecessary and distracting crap. Windows 8.x/10 looks like a video game and an Ad Man's wet dream. Pity the poor support guy who might have to try and talk a frustrated end user through the all visual metaphors to get to the root of some issue; without remote access that could be almost impossible. I think trying to collide the two interface styles is a mistake; the desktop might need improvement but it does not need to be replaced on the desktop. The app fueled touch screen tablet interface should be optimised for use on small screen devices and large screen presentation devices. The desktop is typically used in a very different way and that needs to be reflected in the GUI certainlu until the mouse and keyboard input devices are finally replaced.

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  9. starmizzle 2 years ago

    The Start Screen failed (and rightfully so) simply because it was stupid and ridiculously jarring to take over a whole screen just to search for an app or flip through big square icons of my installed apps. With as customizable as computers are (or are *supposed to be*) there was simply no excuse for the Start Screen to hog up a whole monitor...it's incorrigible that you can't scale it to use 1/3 of a screen or even 1/3 of the bottom half. *THAT* is why it sucked and why you are wrong. And forcing it on a server environment where precisely 0% of admins are using touch screens just shows how moronic the whole lot of the M$ design team actually can be. At the end of the day, any user should be able to customize their *THEIR* computer to interact and interface with it the way they want. You like a full screen Start Menu? Bully for you. But your assertion that it somehow makes sense to dumb down the GUI on a desktop since it's the way tablets look is shortsighted and frankly the dumbest thing I've read on the internet today.

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    • Author
      Michael Pietroforte 2 years ago

      Let met ask you just one question. Why didn't the Start screen concept fail on macOS (Launchpad)?

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  10. Larry Moore 2 years ago

    I am one of those that hates the 8.1/10 start menu. It is more difficult to search through all the graphics on several pages to find the needed program. Ergo, I use Classic Shell to have a windows 7 start menu on my 8.1 desktop.

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  11. David Skye 1 year ago

    I have just been through this article.
    I'm afraid that I ma a 'dinosaur' in computing terms.
    At 74, I am happy with my current Win 7 machine - a Lenovo T400 - and it serves me well.
    What do I used my computer for?
    There are two sides to using a computer.
    One is to utilse all the billions of on-line applications, and the other is as a stand-alone tool.
    There is a mountain full of useful applications which do not require the internet. Some of my most-used applications are Picture Publisher (or other art-work apps), writing apps such as Word, Note-pad (for quickeys!)and Serif's "Page Plus" is probably my most used application. I use "Noteworthy Composer" for writing music, and one can't forget time-wasting Freecell!!
    As far as web-based apps, I suppose email (I use Hotmail and occasionally Gmail) are my commonest.
    So, really, I have no desire to "update" whilst everything I do is working. I have used Win10 on another computer, but I did not like it as much as Win 7, it did not seen to do anything any better (and sometimes more slowly!) than this, so this T400 is my archaic device to suit my archaic age!!
    Dave

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  12. Marion Näser-Lather 2 months ago

    The reasons why many people hate the new UI is obvious: you. can´t. work. with those ugly tiles and every app going into full screen mode without the possibility of adjustments. I use the computer mainly for writing scientific papers, analyzing my data, and browsing. When I write, I often compare two versions of a text or copy&paste paragraphs from one document to another. For this, I usually display more than one document at once on my computer screen. I also switch frequently between tasks. So, this new UI is just a pain in the ... for working productively. Sorry for using this lingo, it just illustrates the depths of my feelings of powerlessness and anger when being confronted with win8. Now I use classic start menue like I suppose most of the people and everything is ok. So, one question for YOU: why, if the new UI is so wonderful, do even programmers of Holy Microsoft themselves use the classic shell (as you can see, embarrassingly, during a presentation of the new win10 :-D)?

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      Michael Pietroforte 2 months ago

      Marion,  It totally agree. The Windows 10 UI is still a mess. It is ugly and it is often hard to work with it.

      It has been a while since I wrote this post and I admit that I changed my mind in the meantime. I still believe that mixing two interface types (PC, touch) doesn't make sense.

      However, after dumping Windows and working on a Mac for couple of years, I now believe that it was a big mistake adding a touch interface to Windows.

      Apple got it right. A great interface for touch and a great interface for laptops and desktops. No compromises!

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