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The Start Button Returns - What It Means; Why It Matters

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft does an about-face on some key Windows 8 decisions. By Matt Whitlock

Microsoft desperately needed to bring to market a touch-centric OS designed for tablets. Rather than scale its recently released Windows Phone OS up, the company decided to adapt the core Windows product down. The result was Windows 8, a mobile and desktop OS merged into one, which has been both a success and a failure, depending on how you look at it.

Windows 8's success stems from bringing Windows in line with new form factors, particularly with tablet/notebook hybrids that need both traditional desktop and tablet interfaces. Microsoft now has a product that enables it to compete in the rapidly growing and highly competitive tablet space. However, its regular desktop and notebook users (the bulk of its current business) is where Microsoft is perceived as failing, going a little too far in trying to make its tile-centric (aka “modern”) UI part of the traditional computing experience.

The modern UI is not only an OS in and of itself, with its own settings and applications, but it's also the replacement for the Start menu of yore, where desktop applications are launched. The Start menu first debuted in Windows 95; it's difficult to replace a UI element that's been in use for more than 15 years. On top of that, the Windows team, under the direction of former Windows Division President Stephen Sinofsky, decided they would remove the Start button from the desktop taskbar and hide it in a hot corner, and not allow users the choice of booting directly to their desktop view instead of the modern UI.

I'll make the argument that the modern UI Start screen is a better program launcher than the Start menu ever was, but I can't defend the team's decision to rub salt in the wound by taking away an important visual cue as well as the freedom to let people use their PCs as they see fit.

With a new Windows director at the helm, and an inbox full of negative feedback from traditional computer users, Microsoft is working hard to right some wrongs this fall with Windows 8.1. That said, there's a lot of misinformation about what Microsoft is doing, and I'm here to put two notable changes into perspective.

First, you may have heard that Microsoft is bringing back the Start button. It's true, but many have mistakenly interpreted that to mean it's bringing back the Start menu. Microsoft is returning a button to the far left of the Windows taskbar with the sole purpose of guiding desktop users to the modern UI Start screen (which can be configured to go to the “all programs” list rather than the tiles).

Is it a big deal? Yes and no. It doesn't add much in functionality, but a large number of stalwart computer users would hit the desktop in Windows 8 and have no idea how to get back to the Start screen to launch a program. Yes, that button on the keyboard will do it and there are gestures to do it, but it's important to reiterate that people have been pressing that little button in the taskbar for more than 15 years. Ripping it away was a poor decision, and I'm glad it's coming back.

Second, Microsoft will now be providing the option for users to choose what they see when they first log in to their PC: the modern UI or the desktop. Personally, I don't mind seeing the Start screen first; when customized with relevant tiles it's a logical first destination. However, I believe in user choice, and there are many cases in which it makes sense to see the desktop first.

Each feature is small, but the implication is huge. Microsoft is listening to user feedback and changing Windows accordingly, which is something it hasn't really done in years. But all this is only the tip of the iceberg; there are a lot of improvements coming to Windows 8.1.

With more than one billion users, it's impossible to please them all, but Windows 8.1, like most dot-one Windows iterations (Windows XP, Windows 7), is shaping up to be a great release for Microsoft, as well as for both consumer and business Windows users.

Visit us at to see more improvements in Windows 8.1.

About the Author

Matt Whitlock is online director and technical editor for

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