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

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...

TOPICS: Windows

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.


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.


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.


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. 

Topic: Windows

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  • Just as

    bringing back Program Manager was the last hope for normality on Windows 95. Then people got used to it and life went on.
    • Correct

      All this whining is just a recycled bashing of anything that is Windows. Eventually they'll find the new experience as the better one.

      I personally see Windows 8 Start Screen as a better way of handling things than Start Menu.
      • These comments are hilarious

        "If you don't like it, buy a Mac." Man, if that's Microsoft's plan for the future I need to go short some stock.

        They want people to buy Windows 8. People aren't buying Windows 8 in the numbers that they expect, in any of the markets its aimed at. At some point you need to stop blaming the users for not doing what Microsoft wants them to and accept the judgement of the market. Either that, or the market will take you up on the suggestion to buy something else.
        • huh

          That comment wasn't meant to be a reply to this one. Not sure what went wrong there.
        • Well said Tridus

          Microsoft isn't listening to the judgement of the market. They're too focused on getting to the top of the hill that Apple is sitting on right now. They want to be the masters of the Mobile Market so badly they've lost sight of all logical and reason.

          If I were a Microsoft stockholder I'd be seething mad right now.
      • Seriously?

        You seriously think the Start screen is a better way of handling things? So jumping back and forth between the Start screen and desktop is good? How about scrolling through dozen of tiles just to find what I'm looking for? Right...

        I will say that for me, the Start screen doesn't work. But if you're someone the lives in Metro apps and never needs the desktop, then it's probably OK. Which leads me to say: why not just give us the choice?
        • Re

          Start screen is like desktop shortcut, search and notification in one.

          In the start menu, you click the start menu and maybe click a pinned application in the start menu. But what happens when you have so many pinned applications in the start menu. The most used apps shortcut lessens and either you typed for search or click All Programs then find and click the app

          In start screen, you have the option to categorize your most used applications and put it in as the first group of tiles. So when you press Windows button in your keyboard you're presented with your most used apps without hindering the number of apps you can pin. Or you can directly type to search for an app after pressing windows button and the best thing about it, is searching is fast and also categorized by app, files and folders, etc.

          You go back to the desktop by pressing keyboard shortcut Windows+D just in case you cancel searching.

          When I mean Start screen is better, I say it that Windows 8 in general is much more fast and efficient than Windows 7.
          • HA! Don't make me laugh.

            In a professional context, the Start screen is the opposite of productivity. Instead is hampers it and creates a cacophony of built up unnecessary clutter that serves as a distraction from the task at hand.

            And people wonder why servers have shifted to Linux, and the majority of IT professionals/coders/developers (besides the starbucks frequenters) have switched to Linux as their primary operating system...

            Anyone who takes themselves seriously in a professional world is condemning Windows 8. Not so much as a bandwagon (as the majority of the Windows Fanboys try to make out) but because Metro is the worst thing to happen to those of us who utilize large amounts of windows and applications that require frequent switching and throughput. Windows 8 Metro is pretty, inefficient garbage intended for end users who are incapable of grasping that the CPU, Hard Drive, and Power supply are components inside of the case of the computer... let alone how to power one up and make sure that the switch on the back is turned on and that the power cable is plugged in.

            I gave metro a real try. I really did. Instead it made my life a headache. Good riddance. I'm much happier with Crunchbang, Mint, Debian, Fedora and Redhat.
          • And let's not forget about Internet Explorer.....

            It's a real security threat just by itself!
          • Don't agree

            I dont use the pinned apps (Windows 7 Ultimate 64b).
            I use Classic Shell and make heavily use of multiple Quicklaunchs bars.
            Next to this my Startmenu is very ordered.

            Windows 8 startscreen does NOT work for me (and many others).
            Different ppl have different ways of working. When do ppl understand that?
            There is NOT just one way of working.

            Windows 7 works more efficient for me (i do my work from home and have often more then 15 windows open, multiple programs running and more).
            Windows 7 is MUCH better for this.
            Next to this i find the 8 GUI nothing more then PLAIN UGLY.
          • Windows 8 is better for multitasking than 7

            I also do alot of work from home. I usually have 10-20 windows open at a time and upgrading to 8 was a huge improvement. Windows 8 handles multiple monitors much better than 7 ever did, starting with a separate taskbar on each monitor only showing applications on that monitor. I personally like the 8 GUI better than 7 because it just seems much more clean and less distracting than the glass look of 7. I use the start screen as a better start menu and that's it, so you don't have to use metro apps.
            Jason Joyner
        • Start Screen/Menu

          To me the if you have a few apps/programs both the Win8 Start Screen and traditional Win7 Start menu are fine. Once you have a large # of apps/programs you still end up searching.

          Using a mouse with a scroll wheel I find I can navigate just as quickly on the Win8 Start Screen.

          However, I agree that MS should have given us a choice and not have people buy a $5 program or find a free option.
          • "Start Screen/Menu"

            "Once you have a large # of apps/programs you still end up searching."
            That was one of my biggest complaints using the standard start menu, scrolling down through categories and folders just to find one program I needed. Even though I pinned the most used programs to the task bar, I sometimes needed that little used, obscure program and had to spend time searching for it. Now, I have a great many programs installed and if the one I need isn't pinned to the task bar, I simply click the magnifier icon (it's labeled "Search"), type in a letter or two and a link to the program pops right up. The same with searching files, Windows 8's search feature is a vast improvement over Windows 7's. Though, like you, I can quickly use a mouse to click the icon on the start screen itself. I actually like quite a few of the apps available on the 'metro' screen, but, my mom is getting a Windows 8 laptop so I'll try the "ModernMix" utility and see if it makes it easier for her to move from XP to Windows 8. It's not a bad idea for those (sorry mom, I'm talking about you) who don't want to learn a whole new way of using a computer- she's 75 years old and probably won't have the patience it takes to learn the new way of doing things. She recently was given a smart phone from my brother and it took her a while to learn how to use that.
            I'm sticking with Windows 8 as it came because I find it far easier to be productive, but I agree that perhaps Microsoft should offer a different option for those who don't like or want the 'metro' screen rather than having to purchase an extra utility for that.
        • Windows always has more than 1 way to do things

          One option is you can rearrange the tiles into groups and order them how you want them presented. You can put your most often used programs right up front and even remove icons for programs you don't want to see.

          Another option is the excellent search features.
          Windows key + F = search
          Charm bar + seach button = search
          or just start typing the name of the program you are looking for when you are at the start screen.

          All of those will bring up the program you are searching for AND allow you to search for content within specific apps like music, app store, netflix, internet or any of the other search compliant apps installed on your computer.

          Yes it beats the pants off the old start button... which ironically you had to scroll through dozens of folders as you complain about the start screen. Though there was the search box which was decent.
          • "Windows always has more than 1 way to do things"

            I should've read your comment first because I just posted pretty much the same thing!
          • Personal tast and way of working

            I don't want and don't need to search for programs because i have my system nicely catagorized and find all my progs by just clicking.
            I hate to type and search for a program.
            So the moment my system is based on that it sux.
            I use Classic Shell (Startmenu W2K style) and dont need to go to scroll through dozens of folders.
            Everything categorized and 3 clicks away.
            Dont think that everybody used the Startmenu as it was forced upon us.
        • Stop scrolling and start typing

          All your troubles will go away. You'll instantly be left with the app you want and a lot faster than navigating the start menu. For instance, I can type "word" faster than I can click start, programs, office, word. If you are going to move it up that chain at all, you are simply putting it on the desktop/start screen, which I can do, too. And by the way, as soon as I type just the letter "w", Microsoft Word is at the top of the list. The start menu feels clumsy if you know what you're doing. Of course, if you don't know what you're doing, a start menu isn't going to help you any more than a start screen.

          What is iOS? It's a gateway to your programs via a grid of shortcuts. The same principals have been in place on a desktop for waaaaaay longer. The same people that are complaining Windows 8 sucks refuse to turn their desktop into the same iOS screen they supposedly cherish. I'm not sure where this constant flipping back and forth comes from either. There are many days that I only see the start screen long enough to click on my Google Chrome tile. Now, I flip to my start screen to instantly see if I have mail in one of several accounts. Much less resources used than leaving Outlook open and less clutter than having multiple windows/tabs. Sure, there have also been a couple of days when I'm "flipping back and forth", but how is that any different that flipping through the start menu? It's not like there is some crazy lag or delay.

          Of course, all the things I'm mentioning are clearly terrible and no one in their right mind would consider less clutter, faster access to the information I need, etc. to be a positive...unless of course I wanted to hate it.

          Given market numbers, I would have to imagine most people that are commenting these days on Windows 8 don't actually own it. I have used Android a few times and I use Safari on my wife's iPhone once in a great while when my phone is out of reach and I'm being lazy. I'm not about to comment on changes to those operating systems because I lack hands on time. Sure, I could base my opinions on fanboy wars, but that's about as non-bias as Fox News.

          Sometimes I wish I wasn't a tech fan because people are really getting pathetic these days.
          • Yep. Because the reason I use a GUI

            is so that I can type in a command line.
          • Not in my world

            I hate to type.
            All should be accessible through shortcuts and clicks.
            Which is on my system.
            It is a GUI!
        • Reply

          Um...hello you have to scroll even more in a start menu. It is a "menu" after all. I don't even use the metro apps, I just keep my most used programs pinned to the start screen. If there's something I need that's not pinned I just start typing and it begins a search. Oh they also have this thing called groups so you can categorize your stuff so it's even easier to find everything. I think you may be using it wrong.