Windows 8.1: The return of the Start button

Windows 8.1: The return of the Start button

Summary: Is Windows 8.1 enough to reignite Windows? Is a U-turn on things like the Start button enough to please the discontented masses? Microsoft has a long way to go until I'm convinced.

TOPICS: Windows 8, Microsoft
(Source: Microsoft)

Earlier this week, my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott and I went head-to-head over Microsoft's planned revamp of Windows 8. Codenamed 'Blue,' the update will be known to most users as Windows 8.1.

Bott argued that the Windows 8.1 release "is part of the new, faster update cadence Microsoft promised when it shipped Windows 8," and that with it, "Microsoft will expand the capabilities of Windows dramatically, allowing it to work with a new class of smaller, cheaper devices that are powerful and portable but are still PCs."

I took the opposing view, arguing that shoehorning tweaks and changes into an already cluttered and confused user interface doesn't seem like the way forward, and that while Windows 8.1 might go some way to helping people love Windows 8 a little more, it is highly unlikely that it will make people fall in love with the PC again.

The race was a close one, but in the end, Bott's argument won the day, collecting 58 percent of the votes. Not a landslide by any means, but it's an indication that on the whole, readers are willing to give Microsoft and Windows 8.1 the benefit of the doubt.

But is adding the Start button back to Windows, along with a few other tweaks, and switching up to a more rapid release cadence really going to be enough to reinvigorate Windows and the flagging PC industry?

I'm still far from being convinced.

First, adding back the Start button, but not hooking that up to the other vital component — the Start menu — doesn't, in my opinion, help much. If anything, all it does is throw more confusion and change at users who are already suffering a decline in productivity thanks to the changes made in Windows 8.

While many people have been calling for the return of the Start button, I don't think it was the Start button they actually wanted back, but the Start menu. Rather than a focused part of the screen devoted to applications and settings, users are now dumped, blinking and confused, into what is essentially a full-screen Start menu.

At the time Windows 8 was unveiled, many of the user interface changes seemed like changes made for the sake of change. Microsoft countered this, arguing that the changes were made based on user feedback and studies. But if that was the case, what does that say of the subsequent U-turn? If the initial change was grounded in research, what's the basis for the change back?

Windows 8 felt like it was less about choice or what users wanted, and more about top-down decision making.

Another problem I have with the user interface changes — both the initial changes and the subsequent change back — is that they give users, in particular enterprise users, a feeling of uncertainty as to what the future might bring. As a rule, big changes happen during major releases, but Microsoft's adoption of a more aggressive release schedule could mean users having to adapt to regular change.

Then there are those who like Windows 8. Where does Windows 8.1 leave them? Striking a compromise between those who love the operating system and those who hate it is going to be tricky.

Another question that bothers me about Windows 8.1 is whether it represents an actual change in Microsoft's release cycle, or just a rebranding of updates that we previously used to call service packs.

Right now I'm not sure what Windows 8.1 is. It feels like a service pack, but if that's the case, what's behind the fact that it's being branded much in the same way as a release would? Is this Microsoft's attempt to generate OS X levels of buzz for periodic releases, or is this a precursor to a subscription plan similar to the one Adobe now offers for its Creative suite of applications?

Another concern I have about Windows 8.1 is that it will lead to thrown-in heaps of upgrade fatigue from enterprise users who have been busy erasing all traces of Windows XP from their networks, and I think that it's hard to get a single message out there that will appeal to all.

And finally, to what may very well be the biggest obstacle facing Windows 8/8.1: the fact is that there was never a proven demand or market for touch-enabled Windows devices. Microsoft's philosophy seems to have been one of "if we build it, customers will come." The primary platforms that Windows 8 is being run on are desktop and notebook systems, and even if touchscreens end up on a quarter of notebooks by 2016, then touch remains very much a niche feature.

As you can now tell, I have a lot of concerns about Windows 8.1.

Windows 8.1 is coming, and with it will come a handful of UI changes that Microsoft hopes will be enough to silence the critics.

A small number of these changes — such as the way Modern apps work — will be of benefit to users, while other changes — such as bolting a part-functional Start button back onto the OS — will do little other than throw more confusion and change at users who are already suffering a decline in productivity thanks to the changes made in Windows 8.

The U-turn that Microsoft is making with Windows 8.1 in adding the Start button back will do little for either existing user, or to encourage more people to take up the platform. The way to reignite Windows is to give users what they want, not force changes on them they never asked for in the first place.

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Maybe wait for the 26th...

    ... So you can at least try the 8.1 demo to see if you like it? 8.1 is bringing more to the table than just a Start Button. It's bringing massive changes to the UX that will benefit all users involved.

    Boot to desktop.
    A damned nice upgrade to Search.
    Better multitasking.
    A better All Apps menu.

    And that's just for starters. The article makes it seem 8.1 will be more of the same, only with a Start Button included, but that isn't the case here. If you're that attached to the Start Menu, there are still alternatives to download and use, but it's not 1995 or even 2001 anymore. Once you get used to using the Start Screen, you'll see just how powerful it is compared to the old Start Menu.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • PR

      And what division of Microsoft do you work for? Oh, silly me. Obviously public relations. Definitely not technically knowledgeable.
    • Interesting

      But Windows Server 2012 installed on a physical or in a virtual machine will not have touchscreens and likely never will, so having the same GUI on that OS is painful and unproductive.

      Windows 8 or 8.1 on a desktop, laptop, or tablet with a touchscreen is just fine, but on a server OS this interface is just mindless.
    • Re: it's not 1995 or even 2001 anymore

      It's not 1976 any more either, so why does Windows still have CP/M-style drive letters?
      • maybe

        MSFT believes AT&T patented the single directory tree.

        And just to be pedantic, CP/M owes its drive letters to CP which ran under IBM's VM/CMS.
        • Re: maybe MSFT believes AT&T patented the single directory tree.

          Even if true, that would have run out long ago.

          One thing AT&T did patent was setuid. I'm pretty sure that has expired too.
    • Once you free yourself from Microsoft rhetoric

      you may find that doing things the same way they have been done on a desktop for 19 years is a good thing, and that change so that Microsoft can collect some more dollars each three years is not what is right for everyone.

      Naked greed is what the changes are about. Microsoft believes it can make you think you are hopelessly behind the curve of technology if you don't have their latest iteration of Windows, when in fact, it offers little to nothing for those already using Windows 7.

      To be really blunt about it, Microsoft would love for everyone to have to subscribe to Windows, so that there would be monthly payments, and the coffers there would be always full. Instead, Microsoft can really only manage a 3 year cycle, as Windows is getting so complex that anything less than a 3 year cycle shows up how poorly they are doing at keeping the bugs out while dreaming up enough changes to make the users believe an upgrade is needed. [I am hardly a Luddite here, as I was a first day adopter of every OS from Microsoft from DOS 3.3 to Windows XP. After that, the benefits were smaller, and many times only cosmetic. Windows has not had a major impact since it conquered the 128 GB disk size barrier, the 64k stacks of Win 9x, or the RAM limit of 512MB - also in Win 9x. Windows XP broke through all those barriers for most, as they were not using the Windows NT, Windows 2000 products.]

      Windows 8.1 is what should have been offered in the first place, but still the older UI should have been a choice. The problem is that Microsoft has no incredibly wonderful, immediately needed feature at the ready, so they must invent one, making everyone think that productivity is enhanced with their new construct.

      Never mind that there are never usability results actually conducted by third parties, showing those increases, that IS the Microsoft way. There never has been and show of increased productivity, ever. Those usability testers are as apocryphal as they were back in the says of Windows 3.0. To my knowledge, no one has ever been identified as a usability tester - it makes many wonder if there ever have been any.
    • powerful how?

      It's not difficult to set up keyboard shortcuts to launch items in the Start Menu hierarchy, and that's how I launch my most used programs. I even include Recent Items in my Start Menu hierarchy to launch it in Explorer with just a keyboard combination. Nowhere near as simple in the new start screen. So how is the new approach more powerful?

      For other stuff, maybe the Start Menu isn't ideal, but I prefer seeing most of my desktop while looking for things within the Start Menu to looking at the full screen app list. If I hit the Windows logo key and start typing, do I really benefit by seeing maybe 6 items on the etire screen and nothing else visible? The App List just isn't useful to be, even in its new categorized or sorted views. As for live tiles, I prefer Rainlendar/Rainmeter displaying info on my desktop because I can have that live content appear ALONG WITH desktop windows.

      Apparently MSFT isn't embarrased by Start8 and the like being more popular than any particular Windoes Store app. They're still trying to push the new UI with as few and as unsubstantial nods to long-time Windows users as possible. At least MSFT still lets users replace Windows's default shell. Credit where due.
  • Spot On!

    Regarding the poll, people who participated are people who read technical news sites like Zdnet, the geek types who love challenges. Plus, you have a vast army of MS employees and contractors who have a vested interest in promoting their wonderful creation so they voted here. The rest of the world, my relatives, co-workers, etc, hate this radical change coming from the MS ivory tower. The idea of combining operating systems with a common UI is ludicrous. In my world of PCs, servers, and mainframes, it's too bizarre to contemplate. Thanks for standing up for the 98 per cent.
    • I'd contest that

      I fill that description - a geek type that loves a challenge. My sister and many of my friends are not. They have windows 8 and had no problem adjusting. They don't want to run back to windows 7.
      • Exactly

        my other half hated Windows XP and Windows 7, they were illogical and she could never do anything herself - I always had to install applications etc.

        I put Windows 8 on her PC and half an hour later she came running into the room, proud that she had installed her first app, ever!
      • What is the reason?

        Just say what they love Windows 8 so that we can determine whether your sister and friends are not geek type of person. Many of the benefit of Windows 8 are actually not important to normal people, especially when they are not using a touch screen.

        There is a time when I believe many of my friends are not geek. However, it turns out that there are many people that are more "non-geek" than my friends. For example, there are many people who only use computer for word processing or browse web-site. They don't really care about Windows 8 or 7. What they really care is "I want to use computer in a way that there is no need to learn how to use it again".

        You may help your sister and friends to adjust. However, many other people don't get help from geek. Then they will simply choose not to buy new Win 8 computers (no matter how old their current computer is). Some of them simply buy iPads because the UI looks similar to their iPhones.
      • Sorry, I simply don't believe you

        I have met nobody in real life who can validate what you claim your sister and friends feel. The changes to Windows are very frustrating to every normal user who I've talked about it with. Some get used to it (grudgingly) at best. But I know of nobody who was thrilled to be put through that.

        Now I'll qualify that by saying that ever regular person I know that has Windows 8 got it on an ordinary non-touch laptop. It might be a very different story if they had bought touch, but most people I know go for the inexpensive machine.
        • That's just shill talk

          @Mac_PC_FenceSitter, their overgushing, uncritical enthusiasm gives them away.
          • Yeah!

            Everyone who doesn't agree with what -you- think must be a shill.

            There's no other explanation.

            Michael Alan Goff
        • My wife hated/adjusted/loves Win 8

          Listen, my missus got a Lumia 610. Her first smartphone. Hated the interface 3 weeks later she got an IdeaTab K3xxxW. She might have killed me the first 6 hours. Now, I'd have to kill her and the kid to take those devices away. She gets it.

          And no iTunes on Windows required.

          She gets it.

          And...if you poke you can find the old start menu folder. On the IdeaTab it is vitually empty.
          Old and Cynical
    • Another general public spokesman

      Speak for yourself and those few people you know. I don't think you are qualified to speak for the several hundred thousand other Windows users - those who don't even know sites like ZDNet exist (doctors, lawyers, authors, journalists, and others who apparently don't do any "real work").
  • you don't need convincing AKH

    You'll spruik any unfounded opinion as long as you get clicks.
  • subscription plans are extortion and predatory

    stop paying and you are cut off. when no buy-once version exists you will have to keep ponying up to stay current and the cost of living and education are exorbitant enough as it is...
    • That does not worry me so much

      as long as there is a competitive market. F/OSS helps keep the proprietary market from getting too out of control which is why I support it. But I'm no RMS either, if proprietary software is good and the price is right I will gladly buy it, even if it is a subscription.
      Michael Kelly