Why Microsoft murdered the Start button in Windows 8

Do you use the Start button in Windows? If not, then you're supposedly the reason Microsoft got rid of it in Windows 8.

(Credit: Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET)

Chaitanya Sareen, principal program manager at Microsoft, told UK computer publication PC Pro that data indicated a decrease in the use of the Start button. Citing "telemetry", obtained by the Microsoft Customer Experience Improvement Program, Sareen said that the company found more users were relying on the Windows taskbar for pinning and accessing their favourite software, instead of going through the Start menu.

As a result of the reportedly dramatic drop in Start menu usage, Microsoft felt that the time was ripe to do something with the old-fashioned menu — "to revive it, to give it some new identity, give it some new power".

So, apparently, Microsoft cooked up the new Metro Start screen, feeling it would provide that sense of power. Of course, the Start screen has proved to be perhaps the most controversial and debated feature of Windows 8. For people who choose to steer clear of the Metro screen, Sareen seems to feel that the taskbar can do all the work.

"So I'm a desktop user — I pin the browser, Explorer, whatever my apps are," Sareen told PC Pro. "I don't go [to] the Start menu as often. If you're going to the Start screen now, we're going to unlock a whole new set of scenarios, or you can choose not to go there, stay in the desktop and it's still fast. You can't beat the taskbar."

Sareen also played up the keyboard, claiming that Windows 8 users are opening apps via keyboard shortcuts, as an alternative to the old Start menu. And amid complaints that Windows 8 is geared more for touch-screen tablets than PCs, Sareen says the OS "really works well with the mouse and keyboard".

Hmm, where do I start? Microsoft clearly continues to feel pressure to justify its decision to kill off the Start button. The company has received a lot of feedback, via its Building Windows 8 blog and other resources, that a fair amount of PC users are unhappy over the changes.

But based on the comments from Sareen, Microsoft just seems to be out of touch with its users.

First, I agree that the taskbar is a great way to access your favourite software. I pin about 10 of my most frequently used programs on the taskbar. There's space for several more, but I don't want to crowd it with too many icons. Otherwise, I won't have enough room to switch between open applications.

So, what happens when I need to launch other programs, the ones I don't use as often? I've installed dozens and dozens of applications in Windows, and there are many I use once or twice a week, or a few times a month. The most convenient way for me to open those is through the Start menu.

Second, the Start screen may be fine for Metro apps. But it's inefficient for launching desktop programs, if you're primarily working in the desktop. Here are two scenarios: one under Windows 7 and one under Windows 8.

Windows 7: I'm working in the desktop and want to launch Adobe Photoshop, a program I use only occasionally. I click on the Start button, open the folder for Adobe Suite, and select the shortcut for Photoshop. Clean, simple and quick.

Windows 8: I'm working in the desktop and want to launch Adobe Photoshop. Since I use it only occasionally, I don't have it set up as a desktop or taskbar icon. I press the Windows key or click the thumbnail in the lower right hot corner to launch the Metro Start screen. I hunt for the tile for Photoshop, assuming I decided to keep it on the Start screen. If not, then I have to open the Apps screen to locate the software. Finally, I find and click on its tile. Windows then brings me back to the desktop to launch Photoshop. Huh? How is that more efficient or more powerful?

So my choices are either to keep bouncing between the Start screen and the desktop each time I want to open an infrequently used desktop program, or set up dozens and dozens of shortcuts on my desktop for virtually every program I use.

Finally, there's something about Microsoft basing its decisions on "telemetry" that bothers me.

How many users participate in the Microsoft Customer Experience Improvement Program? And who are they? Average users? Power users? Using data to help make decisions is fine. But at some point, you have trust your own instincts and listen to the direct feedback from users, even if they disagree with you.

To me, it wouldn't seem like a big deal if Microsoft were to reinstate the traditional Start button in Windows 8. It's certainly technically do-able, and it would help users feel more comfortable with the new operating system. But if the company keeps relying on its "telemetry", then the chances of that happening are probably slim, at best.


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MotorMouth posted a comment   

This article is way off-base. Let's use the Photoshop example they cite above - "I click on the Start button, open the folder for Adobe Suite, and select the shortcut for Photoshop. Clean, simple and quick." Rubbish! That's not how it works at all. You have to go to Start, then choose "All Programs", then scroll down past all the garbage MS put in on top of the folders, then open the folder, then click on the PS icon. That's 5 steps. The Start Menu in Vista/Win7 is terrible, much worse than it was in XP. In Win8 you hit the WIN key, then choose "All Apps" if you need to, then find the icon within the appropriate heading (folder). That's three steps, two less than it is in Win7.

Photoshop doesn't open in the Start Menu in Win7, it opens on the desktop, exactly as it does in Win8. I cannot see why you would think of it as a different process when it is clearly exactly the same.

"So my choices are either to keep bouncing between the Start screen and the desktop each time I want to open an infrequently used desktop program, or set up dozens and dozens of shortcuts on my desktop for virtually every program I use." What? How can you see a difference between having to constantly open the Start Menu in Win7 or having to do EXACTLY the same thing in Win8? You press the WIN key, or click in the bottom-left corner, and you get lists of applications in each case. Replace the word "menu" with "screen" and that's how big the difference is. The process is otherwise identical, except that you can customise the "screen" up the ying-yang, whereas your options are very, very limited in the "menu".

I find it amazing that supposedly tech-savvy reporters struggle to get their head around what is, to me, a really simple paradigm. It is not like there are two completely different versions of Windows in Win8, it is the same thing with two ever-so-slightly different flavours. e.g. What's the difference between the way the Zune desktop software behaves and the Metro Music app? They both look very, very similar but there is one obvious difference - Zune doesn't have to run full-screen but the Metro music app does. That's it - one tiny difference. (Clearly the apps themselves have different features, I am talking about the way they work within the Windows environment - desktop vs Metro.)

For me that is the one and only significant difference between the traditional desktop environment and the new, touch-friendly Metro environment - Metro apps have to run full screen, desktop applications do not. Beyond that, Metro seems to favour horizontal scrolling, where vertical scrolling is more prevalent on the desktop, and the way each draws widgets is different (although not with Zune, so clearly they can be the same). Everything else is very, very similar and takes no time to get used to. In fact, I don't think the change from Win7 to Win8 is nearly as big as the change from WinXP to Vista/Win7 was, mainly because the changes are all very obvious and easy to intuit, not hidden away like they were in Vista (re-organised Control Panel, screen-res settings, etc.).

What really scares me though, is the conclusion. As though putting the Start button back in will suddenly make all those things different. It won't. The Start button was still there in the Dev Preview but all it did was exactly what pressing the WIN key still does - open the Start Screen.

Having said all that, I do agree that removing the Start button is a stupid idea, but for very different reasons. Its stupid because it creates that initial confusion in new users looking at Win8 for the first time. Once you know that you can press the WIN key or click in the corner where the button used to be, everything is fine but with no button it creates a negative first impression which, as we can see abundantly demonstrated here, is carried on into other parts of the experience that would otherwise be overwhelmingly positive. At the same time, there is no benefit to removing it, which makes it seem bloody-minded that they haven't put it back in after all the negative feedback it has created.


TonyS14 posted a comment   

It's called typing into the start screen to search, you brain-dead excuse for a tech reporter. I, personally, haven't used the start menu for anything except for the search box and the my computer button anyways.


SampsK posted a comment   

Lance is right, who wants to type when you can just click? This appears to be a punishment for not letting Microsoft spy on us. The fair rule is (Mozilla) is free so you extend the courtesy, you pay for (Microsoft) so they don't get to shaft you twice. Simple.


TroyM3 posted a comment   

Click the start corner, the type "photoshop"

Sound easy? Because it is. I would've thought a reporter at cnet, of all web sites, would be schooled in the efficient use of windows 8. Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time with the new OS should find it far more intuitive and efficient.


MotorMouth posted a reply   

Its not even that hard - just type "P" and Photoshop will almost certainly come up straight away.


ChristopherK1 posted a comment   

Does the idiot realise that you can just click Windows Q, type photoshop, press enter and have it up in two secs?


LachlanC posted a comment   

Start Button in win 7 is a bit cumbersome these days. Start screen in Win 8 is much quicker and elegant. A single Windows Key toggle the Start screen and the desktop. Or Windows Key Q to open the search bar. Start typing the software name and it shows you the software to click.


Chandler posted a comment   

I rarely look for the folder in my start menu - for apps I don't have pinned on my taskbar, I just hit the Windows key on my keyboard and start typing the name of the program, clicking on it when it appears in the search results.

Simple, efficient, clean.


LeighC posted a comment   

Wow. Talk about bias! I just love your two descriptions for opening Photoshop, each of which involve 3 steps (2 actually in Win8 if you have it on your start screen, which would be a deliberate choice and not a guessing game which you imply): Open Start menu, open Adobe folder, click shortcut in Win7 vs open Start screen, open Apps folder, click shortcut in Win8.

The former you describe as 'clean, simple and quick' and the latter you litter with words like 'hunt for', 'locate' and 'finally'. Care to explain how your personal little rant qualifies as 'news'?


JaneH1 posted a comment   

I never use my start bar.. I just use Launchy instead!

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