A Start button and menu won't save Windows 8.x, but Windows 7 could

I know what you’re thinking -- BetaNews doesn’t need yet another Start button/menu story surely! But actually, I think we do, so bear with me. My colleague Brian Fagioli believes that Microsoft most definitely shouldn’t restore the Start menu in a future version of Windows, and in fact wants the OS to run "legacy" (aka desktop) software full screen like a Modern app. Mark Wilson on the other hand, thinks Microsoft should re-introduce the menu and leave the Modern UI to tablets.

Both are interesting viewpoints, and the comments accompanying the articles show that there’s a firm split in opinion among Windows users. But the Start button and menu isn’t a magic bullet. Adding it to Windows 8.2, aka "Threshold", or even bringing it back to Windows 8.1 as a mini update, as some tech watchers have suggested could happen, won’t save the day. There’s too much negativity surrounding the tiled OS -- and that’s what Microsoft really needs to work to fix.

Let’s jump back in time a couple of years. Microsoft sees dwindling PC sales, and the rise of tablets and touch screens as an opportunity to re-invent Windows, and make the OS -- and itself -- more relevant. The software giant came to the mobile party far too late and doesn’t want to make the same mistake by missing out on the tablet revolution. Doing nothing -- rolling out a new version of Windows 7, with a fresh coat of paint and some re-tooled bundled applications -- is not an option. It can’t simply ignore the sea of change happening around it. So it comes up with a great idea -- an operating system designed for touch, that will run on tablets, but which also has a desktop mode that will allow the OS to run legacy software while users and hardware manufactures catch up. It will likely be a year before touch is everywhere, but when it is, Windows 8 will be ready.

The idea is risky, but could work. And Microsoft needs to take that gamble. There are other reasons to switch to an app based system including the number one motive for a business to do anything -- a fresh revenue stream. Microsoft has seen old rival Apple suddenly transform itself to become the darling of the tech world, and at the heart of that transformation is an app ecosystem which allows the Cupertino, Calif.-based firm to make money -- a lot of money -- from someone else’s hard work.

Ultimately, Microsoft had no option but to create Windows 8, but what it failed to properly address was the consumers’ resistance to change.

Windows 8 was too different, too touch orientated, and too difficult to use. People who didn’t own touch hardware, and that was pretty much everyone, found themselves confronted with an OS that hadn’t been designed for them. That had been designed, seemingly, for touch devices they didn’t own, and which had been created to make life difficult. Launching programs had been made slower, and more annoying, and Microsoft was pushing them to use apps, but then not offering a decent selection, and making them available in possibly the worst designed app store ever.

Perhaps most alienating of all, these apps all run full screen -- which is what you need on a tablet -- and look weird and over-sized on a large screen desktop system or laptop. Suddenly the Windows we’re all used to has become Window. A far less useful OS designed for single-tasking.

You know all this of course. But I wanted to just go over old ground, to remind everyone how we got here. Reviews of Windows 8 weren’t kind. Chris Pirillo called the OS "a monkey with four asses" and my colleague Joe Wilcox said it was like a bad blind date – "stunning, sexy and sultry. But you can't live with her".

Users who switched to Windows 8 mostly fell into two camps -- those who added a third-party Start menu, to make the OS much more usable on the desktop -- and those who embraced the change and learned to love it. I went the third way, and used it as was, but hated it. I never believed those people who said it was great, or claimed glibly that anyone who didn’t like it was "using it wrong". Rubbish. It wasn’t a monkey with four asses, it was a half-assed monkey released far too early in an effort to arrive before touch went fully mainstream.

Windows 8.1 is a great OS, and I love it. It fixes many of the problems of its predecessor, and is more usable on desktop systems. Touch hardware has arrived in great numbers, and while consumers aren’t rushing to replace their aging systems, it’s at least available now. Microsoft reintroduced the Start button, and added an Apps screen, which is like a giant Start menu, both decent compromises.

But consumers still aren’t buying.

Windows 8.x is viewed as an operating system designed purely for touch systems. Consumers who don’t own touch-screen PCs or Windows compatible tablets, feel it’s not for them. The OS has a reputation -- a stink -- that it can’t shake off. Ask anyone who has never used Windows 8.x what they know about the OS and they’ll tell you it’s designed for touch, difficult to use, app-orientated -- even though there are NO apps for it -- and the lack of a proper Start button and menu makes it difficult and slow to use on a desktop system or laptop.

None of that is really true now. I can launch legacy programs directly in Windows 8.1 at least as quickly as I could in Windows 7. I don’t own a touch screen PC but I don’t feel I’m missing out in any way. And there’s plenty of great apps available in the app store.

I don’t miss the Start button and menu, but if I did I could always add a third-party one anyway. There are plenty of great choices. Its absence isn’t what’s killing Windows 8.x adoption.

The missing Start button and menu is a rallying cry behind which the Windows 8.x haters have gathered, but restoring it won’t suddenly persuade the masses to make the switch. Microsoft will need to make more sweeping changes than bundling an optional UI with a future version of Windows. Nothing less than scrapping the whole Modern UI will be enough to get resistant consumers on board at this juncture.

So Microsoft has two choices. It can push on with its vision of a future-proofed touch-orientated OS, making just enough concessions to get the fence sitters to try it, or it can U turn and add a Start menu and an option to hide the Modern UI, and hope that’s enough. As with all compromises, it probably won’t be.

There is a third way though. Microsoft already has a beloved OS with a Start screen and menu that’s selling well (selling better than Windows 8.x in fact) -- Windows 7.

Instead of hamstringing its new touch OS with features from the past, why not simply update the older OS, giving it the core and best (non-touch) elements of Windows 8.x and present that to desktop users? Call it Windows 7.5, or Windows Legacy, sell it for a not-unreasonable price, and make upgrading to Windows 8.x or 9, simple and free (or also low cost). Get people to take two steps into the future, instead of one. That way everybody wins.

When Microsoft first started work on a new operating system, simply updating Windows 7 wasn't an option. Now it could be the solution the tech giant so desperately needs.

Photo Credit: twobee/Shutterstock

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