The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

Summary: We all use the Windows Start menu every day, but did you know that it wasn’t always called the Start menu?

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    As you know, the Start menu is the centralized launching point for all applications and tasks in the Windows operating system. However, it wasn’t always called the Start menu.

    In this little gallery of images, we’ll take a look at the evolution of the Start menu from Windows 95 to Windows 7.

    Image created by Greg Shultz for TechRepublic, all rights reserved.

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    In the early days of development of what would become the Windows 95 operating system, there were three buttons on the lower left part of the screen called System, Find, and Help. The System button had a Windows flag icon and was considered to be the main menu. The icon on the Find button was an eye looking into a magnifying glass, and the icon on the Help button was a question mark along with the letter I for information.

    As I mentioned, the System menu was the central menu and it contained just 5 commands, of which two survived the next phase of development: Run and Shut Down Windows. Programs had its own icon on the desktop as did File Cabinet.

    However, usability tests revealed that the word System wasn't very intuitive. The ultimate finding of those early tests was that people needed to know where to begin, or start, when they used the new operating system. As such, it was decided that labeling the button Start was the best solution. In subsequent usability tests, it was discovered that people immediately clicked the Start button and began using the menu as it was intended. As such, the menu became known as the Start menu.

    Image created by Greg Shultz for TechRepublic, all rights reserved.

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Topics: Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

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22 comments
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  • Horrid. Horrible.

    IMO, the Start menu is one thing that Microsoft never got right, and frankly I'm not fond of the whole "use a menu as a program manager" paradigm in general.

    This was intended to be a replacement for the icon & folder system that Windows 3 had, which allowed for easy grouping of similar programs.

    While Window 3's Program Manager implementation was primitive, I don't think the paradigm itself was flawed. I've never really seen the menu paradigm as being "superior."

    "Programs" / "All Programs" is an absolute mess that should have been solved a long, long time ago. If you have one of two installed programs, it's fine - but it's horrible for power users who like installing lots of programs. No classification, no organization of any kind! Not to mention all of the companies want to use their company name, not the name of their software as the base entry. And often they want a dozen other files in addition to their product in it.

    So I'm looking for a certain type of program made by a small company with an impossible to find name. Yeah, have fun with that.

    For even more fun, try reinstalling Windows, which will wipe all of your programs and settings.

    These are problems that frankly Microsoft should have solved ages ago. Yet they continue to insist on leaving "All Programs" as a dumping ground of basically meaningless, random items. It needed classification, organization a long time ago, and to this day it is STILL a junk heap.

    I'm sorry, this junk heap has merely evolved to a prettier junk heap. It's still the most horrible part of Windows (that, and the registry - don't get me started with that).
    CobraA1
    • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

      @CobraA1
      I agree, I now edit a file and make the start menu "grouped" with all utilities, work stuff, etc.
      It should be selectable not look it up and edit it yourself.
      Old Windows 3.11 user and Dos 5
      MoeFugger
    • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

      @CobraA1 I strongly disagree. If you put a number before each file or shortcut on the start menu, you can then hit the flag button and the number and it pops open.... nothing faster. You can group programs in any order you want, so why go to a folder with your programs in it. Or, put a folder with your favorite programs and put a shortcut to it on the Start Menu. Oh, I use the classic start menu, the new one is stupid and slow.
      bigsteve666
      • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

        @bigsteve666 I sould, but it would take about as much effort as sitting down and trying to organize the thing, only to break all of the uninstallers when they try to remove the shortcuts, not to mention any organization effort is a bit futile if you want to reinstall Windows, because backing stuff up doesn't keep your software installs.

        Can you organize it if you really wanted to? Sure. But it breaks about as much as it helps, and it really needs to be done by default rather than manually.
        CobraA1
    • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

      @CobraA1 <br>I think the new start menu for Windows 7 is wonderful. Hate to sound like a fanboy but, love being able to search directly from there instead of Explorer itself. Also, like the Start Menu after XP. Eased things up like favorite applications.
      ZackCDLVI
      • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

        @Zc456 Search is a crutch for a bad system, not a replacement for more organization. I hate playing "guess the right word to search for" about as much as I hate going through an impossibly long list.
        CobraA1
  • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

    Most of the time, I don't even use the Start menu. I keep the icons on my desktop, including the Control Panel, for those programs I like to use most, even though I do install a large number of them. I can create folders on the desktop into which those icons can be placed by categoriees -- whatever categories I want to define.
    bionicbub
  • Left out the 'Apple' menu at the beginning

    ...since that's where it really began. Then Windows 95 got a great idea, amongst some other uncanny ones.
    ShamooToo
  • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

    well start menu was not designed for computer gurus like you guys. if you an "advanced user" just ignore it and use your run command or dos prompt or taskbar or your desktop or any other 3rd party docking application. not a biggy.
    alshawwa-20045078549136243675845149874891
  • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

    @ CobraA1: As someone who claims to be technical, you don't seem to know it's easy to categorise the start menu/delete default start menu folders. I have dozens of programs installed but only have 7-8 start menu folders, such as Internet, Diagnostic Tools.<br><br>Windows 3.x's Program Manager would in no way more efficient. You had to Alt-Tab to get back to it, along with any other program you had open. The Start Menu is always just there.<br><br>I do see Microsoft replacing the Start Menu one day, especially now they're keen on the Ribbon.

    The Start Menu is largely still there because it's what newbies expect. Things such as Desktop, Quick Launch, Windows 7's Pinned Shortcuts all replace it for the Apps you use most of the time.
    bradavon
    • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

      @bradavon This isn't about how much I know - it's about the default setup. I'm well aware that I can change the default setup, but after the 1000th time of doing so, it gets tiring. It really needs to be the default.

      "Windows 3.x's Program Manager would in no way more efficient. You had to Alt-Tab to get back to it, along with any other program you had open."

      Yes, 3.1's system was primitive and could be improved. But IMO the paradigm was not the problem - what, clicking on a folder icon is harder than clicking on a pretty flag somehow? Since when? I want better access to ALL OF MY SOFTWARE, not just the top 5, da***it!
      CobraA1
      • 3.1 primitive?

        @CobraA1 Windows 3.1 imho were the less worse ms-windows version ever - besides it's a pseudo operating system (just like windows7), so fragile about security and hard to use when compared with Linux and OSX, Windows 3.1 were way less bloated and less plenty of obscurity and eula-fud paranoia, and it doesn't takes 20gb of disk space with crap, or bloats the ram memory space
        nitrofurano
      • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

        "besides it's a pseudo operating system (just like windows7)"

        Windows 7 is certainly a full OS, no doubt about that.

        "so fragile about security and hard to use when compared with Linux and OSX"

        Are we talking about Windows 3 or Windows 7? Windows 3 existed long before Linux and MacOs X, and even the Internet itself didn't really exist.

        Windows 7, on the other hand, is plenty secure and runs on netbooks.
        CobraA1
  • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

    Good trip down memory lane.. to the time when I carried around 6 floppy disks to run Win 3.1.
    Just to get a bit picky, I would have loved for the background to change for each slide with the default desktop background for that OS version (or where you planning for a different slideshow for that?)
    ramesh_vishveshwar
  • You didn't mention.....

    Windows 7's Start Menu supports Jump List options. You can see that via the arrows beside many items in the screenshot.

    Also, Windows Vista's default for the "power" button in the Start Menu was Sleep, whereas with Windows 7, Microsoft decided to got back to using Shut Down as the default. Using Sleep is always my preference over doing a full shutdown, now that hybrid sleep allows for safe sleep options (it saves the Hibernate file before going to sleep so that the computer can resume faster than a full startup, even if the power is completely cut). However, it's obvious that Microsoft would have you just not even bother doing a a shutdown or manual sleep, and just leave the computer on to go to sleep automatically.
    Joe_Raby
  • Kinda funny how things change

    Windows 7 now favours docking icons to the taskbar over using the Start Menu, similar to OS X. And now with OS X Lion, Apple is going back to the method of showing icons inside a window in a grid, just like Program Manager from Windows years before Windows 95.

    There has to be some better way of launching applications than either a grid of icons or a menu.
    Joe_Raby
  • Ah, simpler days

    What I missed about the classic MacOS and the early Dos/Windows file systems is that you can always easily figure out what each file is for, what it does, and where it "really" resides within your directories (I'm not talking about hard drive sectors, just the file directory representations of the data).

    Now I always have to check for which directories and which applications I am actually opening, when I access the start menu -- which I find too contextualized (what do you mean I have to "fix a problem" to find file X or Y...why is that a problem?).

    I get around this bureaucracy by creating my own shortcuts to specific files and directories, and naming them however I see fit. Yes, I am simply adding another layer of complication atop what's already there, but it is one tailored to how I get things done.
    Tech watcher
  • RE: The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

    Interesting that the logon username has been dropped after its initial appearance in XP. It was a friendly gesture and as far as I can see quite harmless..
    PassingWind
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