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The Evolution of the Windows Start menu

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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By Greg Shultz on
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1 of 10 Greg Shultz/ZDNet

 

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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2 of 10 Greg Shultz/ZDNet

 

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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3 of 10 Greg Shultz/ZDNet

 

In its final form, Windows 95’s Start menu retained the Windows flag on the button with the addition of the word Start. And, you can see that Help, Find, and Programs were all put on the menu along with Run and Shut Down commands. Also added were Documents and Settings. 

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

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Soon after Windows 95’s debut, Windows NT 4.0 made its appearance and it too featured the new Start menu. As you can see it has the same base items, but its name is emblazoned vertically along the side with a colored gradient background.

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

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When Windows 98 hit the streets, its Start menu indicated its tight integration to the Internet via the Windows Update button at the top of the menu and a duplicate of Internet Explorer’s Favorites menu right after the Programs menu. You can see that the Log Off command became a main part of the Start menu.

The Quick Launch toolbar also made its appearance in Windows 98 and while not technically part of the Start menu, it did provide a similar function--the launching of applications.

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

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6 of 10 Greg Shultz/ZDNet

 

In Windows 2000, we saw a shift back to cleaner Start menu. Favorites were gone and the Log off command now appeared in the Shut Down Windows dialog box. (However, you could put the Log off command back on the Start menu, if you wanted.)

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The Windows Me Start menu basically looked and worked just like the Windows 2000 version.

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8 of 10 Greg Shultz/ZDNet

 

When Windows XP made its debut, it was immediately apparent that the developers had radically modernized the Start menu. So much so that they provided the option to switch back to the Classic Start menu, so that those who were not ready for a new start menu could go back to something familiar. The Classic Start menu looked and worked like the one from Windows 2000 and previous versions of Windows.

Windows XP’s Start menu provided a whole new paradigm with a host of features for launching applications, accessing documents, and performing common tasks. On the top left side of the menu, you had the Pinned items list, and below it, the Most frequently used program list. The All Programs button provided a pop out of the familiar Programs menu. On the right side, was a list of items that provided access to common items and made performing common tasks a real snap. Shut down was renamed to Turn Off Computer and along with the Log Off button, had a dedicated spot on bottom of the menu.

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

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9 of 10 Greg Shultz/ZDNet

 

After 6 years of Windows XP, the developers of Windows Vista decided to shake up the user interface with Aero and made many changes to the Start menu. The most obvious was the Start button, which changed from a box with the word Start on it to a glassy orb sporting only the Windows flag. The next major new feature was the Start Search box, which served as the main Search interface for the entire operating system.

The new Start menu retained the two paneled menu structure with the pinned and most recently used applications appearing in the left panel and the standard items appearing on the right panel. However, you can see that the standard items in the right panel no longer contain individual icons—only text. A single icon appears at the top of the right panel and changes according to the item you point to. For example, when you point to the Control Panel item, the Control Panel icon appears at the top of the right panel, when you point to the Help item, the Help icon appears, and so on. You'll also note that the ubiquitous "My" lingo was dropped. For example, My Computer is now just Computer. 

The shut down button is now just a button that can be configured to sleep or hibernate as well as shut down. There’s also a button for locking the system and all of the shut down options appear on a small menu adjacent to the lock icon.

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

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10 of 10 Greg Shultz/ZDNet

 

The most recent version of the Start menu, in Windows 7 is almost identical in appearance and functionality to its predecessor’s Start menu. However, you’ll notice that the Shut down button has changed back to words and the lock icon is gone. All shut down options appear on a small menu adjacent to the Shut down button.

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

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