Windows 8 Will Live or Die Based on The Start Screen

Earlier this week, Microsoft principal program manager Chaitanya Sareen dished out information on why Microsoft ultimately decided to kill the Start Menu and replace it with the polarizing Start Screen. According to her, killing the Start Menu wasn't seen as a big deal, given that consumers and businesses had largely stopped using it.

We’d seen the trend in Windows 7. When we evolved the taskbar we saw awesome adoption of pinning [applications] on the taskbar. We are seeing people pin like crazy. And so we saw the Start menu usage dramatically dropping, and that gave us an option...

So I’m a desktop user, I pin the browser, Explorer, whatever my apps are. I don’t go the Start menu as often. If you’re going to the Start screen now, we’re going to unlock a whole new set of scenarios, or you can choose not to go there, stay in the desktop, and it’s still fast. You can’t beat the taskbar."

Sareen's comments don't tell us anything we didn't already know; Microsoft engineers have written several lengthy blog posts discussing the company's UI vision, explaining why it feels the Start Screen is superior to the Start Menu. Seven months and ~15,200 words later, this issue continues to slap Redmond in the face. Microsoft has responded to the criticism by doubling down. The Windows 8 Release Preview, which debuted on May 31, killed a number of user-created workarounds that re-enabled the Start Menu.

The new Chrome-less look W8 will introduce

Microsoft's willingness to discuss Start Screen design philosophy is great, but it does nothing to fix the underlying issues. Longtime Windows journalist and author Paul Thurrott writes: "I still have serious reservations about what Windows 8 will mean for power users and developers like me... Worryingly enough, I don't appear to be alone. I've read review after review from people who are actively working with and testing Windows 8, and the same sentiments keep cropping up. Reviewers want to love Windows 8, but they keep butting heads with Metro when they try to get work done."

TechCrunch author Frederic Lardinois notes that he's gotten used to the ongoing Metro/Desktop collision, but " it took me a good two or three weeks to get to this point. Most people also won’t have the patience to relearn how to use their computer. If it annoys pundits who are paid to test apps ever day and who generally embrace change, mainstream users will probably hate it even more."

It may be true that the vast majority of users don't launch programs with the Start Menu anymore, but that's not really the point. For years, users have been taught that the first step in solving a problem, hunting for certain applications, or accessing the Control Panel is to press the Start button. If you're the kind of user who finds computers somewhat intimidating and hard to understand, pressing Start is a giant slap in the face. It's not just that the interface is different; Redmond has removed all the secondary visual clues that previously helped users dig around for programs or settings.

Microsoft is apparently betting that positive press from the tablet market will overwhelm any negative reactions to Windows 8 on the desktop. In doing so, it's ignored the fact that 1) The overwhelming number of Windows users own desktops or laptops and 2) An OS's first few months are absolutely critical when it comes to molding customer perceptions. Everyone remembers Windows Vista as the OS that sucked, not the OS that was pretty good after a few service packs. Windows 8 will be no different.

Even after learning to use Metro, I find myself wincing every time I have to hit the Start button. I spend time with the interface because that's part of my job, not because I want to. The idea of moving my parents or other family members over to Win 8 is laughable. Having had to repress the desire to put a fist through the monitor on more than one occasion, I can't imagine the blowback, or rather I can, and want no part of it.

I've held off on writing this story because it seemed ridiculous to suggest that changing from Start Menu to Start screen could be the Achilles heel of an entire operating system. After reading comments from others who tested the Release Preview as well as working with it myself, the idea no longer seems quite so outlandish. Yes, people can learn to use W8, there's tons to like about Metro in a tablet, and Microsoft introduce a number of features on the Desktop side that make it attractive. Unfortunately, all of that may not be enough to overcome the visceral frustration you slam into when trying to use W8.

When your users divide their time between learning to use Metro and trying to find ways to never hit the Start button again, it's a sign of a problem. If the company doesn't fix it, it'll regret it down the road.