Start8 and ModernMix -- Windows 8's last, best hope for normality on the desktop

Summary:The users are revolting — it turns out that the mainstream market doesn't get (or want to get) Windows 8's clever new way of working. It's OK though, you can just undo it...

I was expecting to get quite a lot of flack for my last piece on Windows 8: " Will 90% of people always hate Windows 8 ." What I actually got was some of the most positive and insightful feedback that I've ever received for one of my articles. Maybe it was Grumpy Cat's influence — hey, we can all be a bit grumpy at times, right? There appeared to be consensus between mainstream and expert users: Microsoft appears to have misjudged the level to which it can make radical changes to the world's most popular operating system.

In his piece " How to make Windows 8 see normal ," my ZDNet colleague David Gewirtz had two pieces of advice: avoid Metro-style apps, and restore the Start button using a third-party tool. If you had said to me six months ago that fudging in a Start button to Windows was a good idea, I would have said you were doing it wrong and that we could no longer be friends. I'm now suggesting that the baseline cost of Windows for home and business use should be considered to be whatever price Microsoft wants to charge you, plus around $5 for something like Start8 from StarDock. (This was the utility that David had in his piece, and I'll also talk about in this piece, however there are others.)

In this article, I want mainly to talk about ModernMix. This utility is also from StarDock and it stops Metro-style apps from running full-screen and runs them in floating windows.

Grumpy Cat - Metro-style
In this candid moment, internet sensation Grumpy Cat is overcome with the positive emotions that are filling up inside of her as she experiences, for the first time, the wonder of running full-screen Metro-style apps as floating windows on the Old Windows desktop.

Start8

You've likely seen this app or one like it before. It fudges its way onto the taskbar and behaves like a Start button. I failed thus far to see any difference between it and the one in Windows 7. It even grabs the Windows key to stop it flicking back and forth to the New Windows Start Screen.

Screen Shot 2013-03-12 at 11.12.51
If it looks like a Start menu, and feels like a Start menu...

I'd suggest that experts and almost-experts don't need this utility. But if that expert/almost-expert supports someone who's a mainstreamer, that mainstreamer does. Think family members and friends that you (willingly?) support in your spare time. If you manage a smaller IT function, the amount of money your company spends on this thing will be worth it just not to hear every single user complaining multiple times about the lack of Start menu when you upgrade them to Windows 8.

So, scratch the fact I used to be one of the biggest critics of this sort of utility. I'm now won over. Windows 8 is too weird for mainstream users to get used to without it causing everyone a lot of pain. Start8, and similar utilities, lets you fix Microsoft's problem whilst they're still debating on just how big a u-turn they have to make in order to rescue Windows.

ModernMix

When I first heard of ModernMix, I thought it was just flat-out stupid. The fact they were charging for the beta turned me off even trying. However, being in a place where I was wrong about Start8 and its kin I thought I might be wrong about ModernMix as well.

ModernMix takes a full-screen Metro-style app and turns it into a floating window with a border, total, and close buttons. It makes a Metro-style app seem normal. You can resize it, move it around, and (importantly) close it. Here's a screenshot with it in operation.

ModernMix Screenshot
Metro-style windows floating around on the Old Windows desktop. Suddenly everything makes perfect sense...

I suspect that technically this is actually pretty easy to do. One of the joys of low-level Win32 programming is that the system is more-or-less entirely open and you can do all sorts of crazy stuff given the right combination of time and inspiration. StarDock has a rich heritage of building apps that makes Windows do all sorts of crazy stuff, and as a result ModernMix works very well despite its beta label.

However, the more important part about ModernMix is that activating it is like flicking a switch that takes Windows 8 from being "nonsensical and as mad as a box of squirrels" to "an actually good desktop operating system."

The way it works is that each Metro-style app gets a little floating button in the top-right where you can switch it between full-screen and windowed mode. (You can also just tap F10 to toggle.) Take any Metro-style app and do this, and it goes from being an app you don't see the point off, to a nice-looking app that you might want to have in your life.

I'm now faced with having to explain why taking a full-screen Metro-style app and running it in a Window makes the user experience much more pleasurable. I would happily run Metro-style apps in floating windows, whereas I can't remember the last time I touched a Metro-style app that I didn't actually write myself. Even the built-in Mail app — perhaps the worst piece of software engineering to leave a software company as capable as Microsoft — becomes usable when you run it in a window. It's not an easy thing to explain, but here goes...

The problem with Windows 8 is that it's a PC operating system, although it tries to be both a PC and post-PC operating system. (Scrub the idea of "PC Plus" — that's just an idea that certain parties want you to believe.) PC operating systems (and this counts for OS X, Linux, OS/2, whatever) are polychronistic, i.e. they are specifically designed to assist the user in scenarios where the user is doing multiple things at once in a mode where the user is focused on achieving a task or tasks. Tablet/smartphone/post-PC operating systems are monochronistic, i.e. they are specifically designed only to do one thing at once.

This split makes perfect sense if you adhere to the rules that polychronicity is better for one thing and monochronicity better for another. Windows 8's madcap design breaks this rule assuming that you can take a polychronistic device and run both polychronistic and monochronistic approaches alongside each other. For that, Microsoft richly deserves all the flack that it's receiving because it's plainly, obviously, wrong.

A PC is a device designed for focused, foreground, task-specific activities. A post-PC device lives in the background, comes to the fore, is accessed, and returned to the background. A polychronistic approach actively helps users in focused, PC-style activities by virtue of the fact it allows the user to put complex sets of information to be at hand whereupon they can be drawn together into a single body of work (i.e. the output). (For example, you might be writing a document by drawing in information from email and websites.) However, polychronicity confuses users in ad hoc/occasional post-PC activities because the user context is one where the user starts by being involved in some non-computer activity (e.g. picking the kids up from school). They then take their device, dip in, discover or share something, and come back out into that original task. Similarly, monochronicity is very limiting when you are trying to create a complex output.

The mistake Microsoft has made with Metro-style apps is to conflate the idea of "touch-centric" with "monochronistic", i.e. the way Windows presents Metro-style apps is monochronistic way. Take an example of someone using a normal Old Windows mail client. They are working polychronisticly with a taskbar, multiple open apps and floating windows. They double-click on an image, and this opens up in the full-screen Metro-style image view. The taskbar and all other information and tools are gone because that image viewer is monochronistic. (The image viewer is designed for sitting on the sofa and enjoying a moment of reminiscing through old photos — it's not designed to collate information for creation of complex output.) It's this "shoving" between polychronistic and monochronistic modes that is — and I mean this — actively offensive and hostile — to users of Windows 8.

What ModernMix does is make Metro-style apps polychronistic. It removes the jarring mindset shift from polychronicity over to monochronicity through the simply expedient of making everything polychronistic. This puts Metro-style apps in harmony with the rest of the Windows operating system. What you see is how clean and clever Metro-style apps actually are, rather than having to peer through the miasma of a broken user experience.

Whether or not I personally would use ModernMix is up for grabs. The reason why I recommend that any expert or near-expert try it is that for $5 it offers such a straightforward experiential hit as to why Windows 8 doesn't work for people. If you're actually interested in this stuff, it's worth the cost of a latte.

There are some rough parts to the product. Metro-style apps are all designed with a minimum screen resolution in mind. By shrinking the apps into smaller windows, you're starving the app of real estate and a good number of apps struggle with this and go a bit wonky. But, that's hardly StarDock's fault.

Conclusion

If you have to support mainstream users on Windows 8, give them Start8 or a similar utility. If you want to understand better what's actually wrong with Windows 8, give ModernMix a try.

For a final thought, how's this? I think it's appropriate that vendors sometimes find themselves in a position where they need to impose a change. The ribbon in Office is one example of this, the Start screen vs Startmenu in Windows is another. Ultimately, if Microsoft don't want a Start menu — fine, we should get used to that and I'm easy if Windows never has a Start menu again.

However, when it comes to the mismatch of mono- and polychronicity in New Windows and Old Windows. That's just flat out wrong. Microsoft needs to change that — stat.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Thanks very much to the owners of Grumpy Cat for their kind permission to use their kitteh's likeness in this article. 

Topics: Windows

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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