Why Windows 8.1’s Start Menu is a Bad Thing

What you’re looking at is not a mockup or some third-party application, it’s the real deal built right into Windows 8.1, suggested to hit the public come August 2014. It was first announced at Microsoft’s BUILD conference earlier this year to much applause, as you can see in the video below.

Based on that first paragraph, the upcoming Windows 8.1 start menu might sound like a very good thing. People want it, Microsoft is giving it to them, everyone’s happy, right? Well, not everyone, but those few (like me) who aren’t isn’t really the issue. The underlying problem of Windows 8.1 Update 1 and, from the looks of it, Update 2 is one of being unable to move forward, and because it’s a problem that has persisted in Microsoft’s audience, it is now a problem at the very heart and center of what Microsoft is doing, too. For better or for worse, Microsoft makes Windows 8. That’s it. Oh, sure, they make Office, they make Xbox, but everything they do leans upon Windows 8. You can see it in the Modern interface. Where Windows 8 goes, Microsoft as a company follows, and that’s why this discussion is so important.

As many of you who’ve been following me for a while know, I was a pretty big fan of Windows 8 since the first developer preview. The gold master, stock Windows 8 was fast and clean. Imperfect or incomplete in a number of ways, but a terrific launchpad for the future of Windows.

Then came along Windows 8.1. It improved upon some of the main holes left in stock Windows 8, but at the cost of some speed. Overall though it was a welcome upgrade. Still incomplete, but on the right track.

Then we got Update 1, and thus began the downhill trek to turning Windows 8 into Frankenstein’s monster. Update 1 has further dampened performance, and confused the touch and desktop paradigms so that divergence between those two user experiences is greater than ever before and yet they are not wholly separate. It looks clunky and unprofessional and feels even more so.

If the return of the start menu is slated for August, then that means Update 2 is on its way and set to create a completely incoherent, inconsistent, cluttered OS that simply lacks the focus to be the future of Windows. Time that should be spent taking forward what Windows 8 started is now being poured into succumbing to the ‘bullying’ of customers who are unwilling to accept any change as a good change. Windows 8 split into heading two different directions is simply not sustainable long-term. You may notice in the BUILD conference clip above that Modern apps will also run in a window come Update 2. While that may seem all fine and dandy to the average user, to developers it’s a problem. Modern apps are designed to operate in a limited number of sizes: fullscreen, and snapped left or right. Windows 8.1 already complicated that simple two-state setup by adding support for 50/50 splits in addition to the 80/20 ratio Windows 8 originally allowed. Making Modern app sizes a free-for-all affair will have disastrous results on most any app not designed to support it, and Microsoft really can’t afford to be a pain in the rear for what few quality developers they’ve got represented in the Windows Store. The only other option would be to limit the resolution and dimensions windowed Modern apps can run in—a tacked-on sort of solution that unfortunately would fit right in with most of what Update 1 has added to the mix.

I have been a Windows user almost as long as a person can be. From Windows 3.1 onward I have used practically every successive version of Windows at some point in time—yes, even a few editions of Windows NT and obscure betas like Neptune. And guess what: the start menu wasn’t always there. In the old days we used a Program Manager/Applications folder that sat in a window which was pretty much constantly in the way. In a sense Windows 8’s modern UI takes that concept and just makes it convenient and attractive. The addition of a start menu in Windows 95 was a big deal, but for years after it was common to run into a PC still running an old version with no start menu, and nobody complained. The start menu was a convenience, not a necessity. It is even less so now that intelligent search functions completely replace the need for any kind of menu at all. In Windows 8.1, just Win + S from anywhere, start typing the name of your file or program, and hit Enter. Hard to ask for a much better, more efficient setup than that.

But now a menu’s coming back anyway. Microsoft isn’t completely abandoning the modern UI, and they’ve found a way to integrate it into the start menu we’re used to, but the end result is a non-committal shame to both paradigms, not a happy marriage. As a third-party tool it would be acceptable and maybe even kind of neat, but as a first-party built-in asset it is a serious step back from what Windows 8 originally stood for.

What all this boils down to is simple: vision. Microsoft had one for Windows 8, but now I’m not so sure. From the looks of things, they’ve let a pursuit of adoption numbers cloud their better judgment. Windows 8 was just the breath of fresh air the operating system needed, but with time things seem to only get more claustrophobic. This trend towards divergence can’t continue for long. It won’t convince users that Windows 8 is ‘safe’ to switch to, and it will drive away those of us who have loyally stayed by its side these past two years. Everyone may think they want the start menu back, but they haven’t thought the consequences through very well. It would seem the old adage still rings true: “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.”