The return of the Start menu? Microsoft is set to stop shoving tablet features on desktops

Word that Windows 8 isn't selling well is probably only surprising to the people that have bought Windows 8 devices so far, because in enterprises around the world the OS has barely gotten any attention other than by the same tortured souls that tried to run Vista.

Word that Windows 8 isn't selling well is probably only surprising to the people that have bought Windows 8 devices so far, because in enterprises around the world the OS has barely gotten any attention other than by the same tortured souls that tried to run Vista. Many sources this week have made mention of the fact that, due to especially lackluster sales, Microsoft may dial back the radical "features" of Windows 8 to make it more broadly acceptable and boost sales. This is, in large part, to boost consumer sales in the PC and laptop sectors that are losing market share to tablets, but it should also bolster enterprise adoption.

According to The Guardian, PC sales have dropped 14% this quarter, despite Microsoft touting how they've sold 100 million copies of the OS. Of course, the majority of those licenses have no doubt gone to unassuming consumers or to enterprises that are immediately downgrading them to Windows 7. Microsoft and, more specifically, former Windows head Steven Sinofsky are catching the blame for the decline of PC sales, and that may not be too far out of line.

What can we expect if Windows 8 executes what Financial Times is calling a "U-Turn?" (or what others have likened to New Coke)? I've written before that Windows 8 is, at its core, still Windows. It's managed the same way as past versions, and it can run all the same applications. Frankly, without Metro and other visual changes, it's probably not much more than a huge service pack for Windows 7. There has been some evidence, however, that Microsoft has re-worked the file system performance such that using Windows 8 in VDI environments allows for better performance and/or higher density. The bottom line: If Microsoft "fixes" Windows 8 and makes it more like the old days, enterprises would probably deploy it by the pallet (or VDI host).

All of this talk, by the way, is coming from a separate vector than the talk of Windows "Blue," which is the codename for the forthcoming update to Windows 8. They could be related, but most of the talk of Blue was centered on killing off the desktop mode entirely. Based on this information, the opposite might be true. It seems like conflicting reports on what Microsoft is up to is the only thing we can ever really count anymore.

So what's likely to change if these latest rumblings prove correct? First and foremost, I wouldn't expect much, if anything to change on tablet-only devices. If Windows 8 was designed with anything in mind, it was for that specific use case (touch-based, with some legacy Windows apps). In fact, Windows 8 in that situation is rather pleasant to use. The problem, as Dan Shappir put so well on twitter, is that it wasn't made for a 24" monitor on your desk.

To accommodate those 24" monitors on desktops (and regular laptops, for that matter), expect to see the Start menu come back. It's the least Microsoft could do to soften the blow. It should be a configurable option, though–perhaps even automatically set based on device type. Tablets would get Metro, Desktops would get the traditional interface, and laptops/convertibles could have an easily accesible option to toggle between the two.

The Start menu isn't the only frustrating aspect of Windows 8, though. The way Metro (or TileWorld, or the Windows 8 interface) integrates with the desktop side of the OS is atrocious. Microsoft can do a lot to either wall one off from the other or to integrate them together in a more intuitive way. IE favorites could persist between modes, for instance, and opening a PDF in the desktop should open a viewer on the desktop instead of in Metro. If something does cross modes to execute, there should be a trail of breadcrumbs to return the user to where they started rather than leaving them stranded in unfamiliar territory. 

The search functionality in Metro is actually pretty cool once you realize that it's context-aware. When you're in an application and start searching for something that should be in the control panel, it takes a moment to realize what is going on. I'm an IT guy, and this still frustrates me. Imagine an end user trying to navigate that minefield. 

While we're at it, it would be nice to see some education on the gestures, or the ability to use them as a shortcut while giving people something to actually click on to do the same task. Closing applications, switching between them, and docking them in areas of the Metro screen could also use some attention. Solutions could be placing an X back in the corner, and some sort of layout/dashboard feature that let's you see all the apps and arrange them however you'd like.

I'm sure there are many more solutions that people can come up with (even more sweeping things like a different OS for tablets altogether). The important thing is that it appears Microsoft is ready to atone for the problems they've created. Of course, our bellyaching isn't what caused it so much as the aftershocks that continue to rattle throughout the PC industry, but we'll take it any way we can get it. They may have a way to go to win back consumers, especially those that have tried to get to Windows 8 and have a bad taste in their mouth. If I were Microsoft, I might even consider calling it Windows 9 to get away from the bad connotations surrounding 8. For enterprises, though, this could be just the thing to keep Microsoft and Windows in the discussion for a longer period of time.

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Well said!


The new UI (Metro) - not just tiles, should of been what the "tablet features" was for Windows xp/7 on non-RT devices.. an option to add not default!


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The question on my mind is, why is the start menu such a big deal?  I realize it is radical, and probably sub-optimal, but seriously how much time do you really spend on the start menu?  30 seconds per day?  Users spend their time running apps, not using the start menu.  Granted, I would welcome the added choice to enable the legacy start menu, but why does it make or break the OS viability?  


Also, you can already pretty easily keep yourself from inadvertently launching into metro apps by changing file associations.


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It will be interesting to whether the Start button returns or the entire Start Menu. There has been rumors in both camps.


In my opinion, it will be a mistake to bring back the entire menu. The OS only needs a target on the desktop.


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Do you guys really believe that adding the start button will fix things for MS? If Windows 8 was an incremental change for Win 7, the article would read that MS is not innovative enough and that Windows 7 is good enough, so why move. I remember that was the things people said between Windows 7 and XP. Why move?


I have to give credit to MS about the bold move. You have to make bold moves if you don't want to be left behind. The idea of sand boxed apps is great, just that there aren't any good ones yet. That will take time.


The problem with PC sales is that computers from 2-3 years ago are still good enough. In fact, win8 made it worse by running faster than Win7 on the same hardware.


MS really needs to come up with reasons why a new hardware platform for PC is needed. They haven't really done a good job at that...


That opportunity still exists out there.


Juan


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@Gabe,


Thanks for the credits - I'm famous now!


@Zach,


"Users spend their time running apps, not using the start menu"


But that's exactly the point! As a Windows user, I don't want to spend time in the Start Menu - I want it to be a quick in an out. I want to get to the desired app as fast as possible. Yet with Metro I'm taken into the Start Screen where I'm forced to spend much more time than I want to.


(You should google what Raymond Chen says about all the work Microsoft did in the old days to make the Start Menu work fast on slow computers back then.)


"you can already pretty easily keep yourself from inadvertently launching into metro apps by changing file associations"


Spoken like a true IT professional ;-)


@DanShappir


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I've been using Win8 on a 'Hybrid' Dell XPS 12 for some 3 months now and overall I love many of the new features and in 'tablet' mode it's mainly a great experience.


The thing that appals me which is mentioned in your post  is the awful lack of seamless integration between Metro and the 'Desktop'.  Try using Office 2013 in both worlds and you'll soon get pretty annoyed.  Using Outlook 2013 (with 'Touch' mode enabled), and the simple lack of auto-popup keyboard when you want to send a new email is a perfect example.  This is exacerbated by the fact that it's virtually impossible to use touch to 'unhide' the taskbar (if, like most, you want it hidden), and without the taskbar you can't manually launch the touch keyboard!!


I have resorted to having my taskbar permanent displayed, but at the left hand side of the screen so as not to interefere with other Win 8 gestures!!  The result is a pretty cruddy looking desktop experience.


The thing I really can't believe is that Microsoft must have held all sorts of focus groups and usability sessions, not to mention pretty extended Alpha/Beta programs and unless they polled a section of the population which was intellectually challenged,  they must just have ignored any advice they got about usability!


I'm sure that making Windows work in a world where desktops, tablets and mobile devices are used interchangeably was not a simple task, but with Microsoft's countless billions, there is not a doubt in my mind that they could have done a lot better.


Would I go back to my non-touch Windows 7 laptop...nope, but I am a techy and able to manage the frustration of a hybrid desktop/metro experience which is semi functional. In the enterprise, I seriously can't see how the current Windows 8 desktop experience can be roilled out without significant cost for app realignment and user education.


Enterprises need the option of a supported 'old style' desktop which can be used during transition, I personally believe that this one option would have saved a lot of embarrassment.


I seriously believe that the 'Hybrid' device will start to become mainstream in the next couple of years, but it will probably take Apple's approach to building a seamless UI which works across platforms which will provide the smarts that everyone will follow.  Microsft has tried, and failed!


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It'd be great to hear from anyone out there in Enterprise customer land who has plans to adopt Win8 in it's current guise, and if so, what they see the main challenges being.


We have our limited real world experience, what is the real Corporate world actually thinking?


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When people look at machine and say, oh, you're running Windows 8, I correct them with, "No, I am running Windows 7.5"  The underlying kernel of Windows 8 is good.  It's fast and works well.


However I had to practically beat the machine with a crowbar to get it working that way.  After installing 3rd party programs to block out metro and get me to the desktop it is now usable.  Some people run more than 1 app at a time.  Even when on a tablet or my smartphone I am jumping between different apps constantly.  It's just the way I work.


Using the start screen is a jarring action.  You go from reading an email, and trying to launch notepad to take a quick note.  You hit the start button on your laptop and BAM completely obscured screen where you now have to hunt for the app.


Much like how they changed Media Center to being part of the base system, but an installable feature, that is what needs to be done with metro.


I am sure on an RT tablet metro rocks.  One app at a time, flipping thru items.  But for those of us that are running 14 different apps at a time.  Yes I just counted them.  The new system just doesn't work.


I had to argue with another tech, he was constantly defending microsoft saying how awesome Windows 8 was, when I finally got him to realize he wasn't using any new feature of Windows 8.  He was locked down to just his desktop.  When I asked him why he was using other tools and not the ones built in, he stated, "Well they suck"  That is what people see.  The face microsoft is putting out sucks.  They should instead flaunt and emphasis what people like and what works.  The pig has enough lipstick.  Time to turn it into bacon.  Cause who doesn't like bacon.


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@stucco LOL


There are 2.2 billion homosapiens of a particular religious persuasion who cannot touch bacon.  16 million of another who are also inclined not to go near it and countless others who just don't like pork!!


Maybe Microsoft already turned it into bacon, but there's no one left who cares?


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