Microsoft Explains Rationale Behind Controversial Windows 8 Start Menu

The Windows 8 Start Menu Screen is shaping up to be a bone of contention between Microsoft's engineers and those following the company's Building Windows 8 blog. In a series of recent articles, Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky delved into the history of the Start Menu (the basic concept is 16 years old) and discusses its various shortcomings.

Part of the impetus for a re-think comes from Microsoft's own research, which shows that Start Menu usage declined dramatically from Windows Vista to windows 7, thanks in considerable part to the debut of taskbar pinning.

Windows 8's Start Screen does away with classic Start Menu functionality and replaces it with an entirely different model. Microsoft believes users will create a dashboard of applications, with app tile updates delivered via the Windows Notification Service. The distinction here is important for mobile devices with limited battery life—the tile updates with the latest news or information, but updates are delivered via a single process. A dashboard full of tiles, in this case, doesn't translate into a screenful of battery-sucking applications. Sinofsky writes:
"We expect corporate applications to be developed that display Live tiles for important internal systems and processes too. You can envision even the most mundane uses being improved by this ability to track live data... Apps can still represent themselves with just an icon and a name....  But, for most of today’s more relevant and connected apps, a simple icon and name is limiting, when they have so much more information they can share. And that information can be shared at a glance without any window management or any context change on your part.

Unlike the flat-listed Start Menu, the Start Screen can be customized and grouped as the user wishes. Group names and strict organization policies aren't required—if you prefer to group a diverse selection of applications you tend to start at the same time, that's fine. If you prefer to keep things segregated according to more traditional schemes (Applications, Games, Internet, etc) that's fine, too. Application searches are now fullscreen affairs, with more room devoted to displaying results. In Windows 7, if a Start Menu search didn't turn up the right data, the user had to switch out to Explorer and search again. Windows 8 does away with that distinction.

Search results are now visually linked to the type of file found. Photos will return a thumbnail image, applications return an icon, etc. Again, this functionality was available through Explorer under 'Icons' view, but absent from the Search Menu.

Get Your Updates Off My Dashboard

The most consistent criticisms of the Start Screen concept center around two facets of the design. First, the idea of constantly updating tiles might sound great for a consumer-centric tablet but for any sort of work environment, it's a nightmare. It's hard to imagine anything more distracting than a bunch of tiles constantly updating themselves in the background.

Granted, most workers keep multiple apps either full-screened or covering the desktop, but that only brings up another sore spot—application switching. Sinofsky writes: "when you’re launching a new app, you’re leaving the thing you’re currently doing. So we wanted to take advantage of the whole screen to make launching and switching apps as efficient as possible. The full-screen Start gives you the power and flexibility to launch more apps with a single click."

Again, that sounds great for consumer applications, but less than ideal for business apps. Oftentimes, launching a new app has nothing to do with leaving one's current task and is instead part of the same workflow or a companion task meant to be completed at the same time. When Microsoft talks about being able to use Windows 7's "snap" functionality to view two apps simultaneously, it feels a lot more like a restriction than a benefit. The screenshot below illustrates the advantages of the current design—options that won't be available in Windows 8's two-app world.

This screenshot is from my own desktop, captured while writing this article. The browser window on the left contains the Building Windows 8 blog entry in question; the right-hand window has one of the associated images. IM conversations are in the lower-right-hand corner, while Notepad overlays (but doesn't block) the actual blog entry. I consider this a fair workflow example precisely because it's so simple. There's no 3D editing or advanced image processing going on, just two browser windows, IM conversations, and Notepad. Under Windows 8, at least with Metro, this sort isn't an an option--at least, not yet.