Why releasing the Start Menu for Windows 8.1 is great, but also a mistake

System Requirements:

  • Windows 8

The Problem:

It’s all many of us ever wanted, right? The option to choose between the old way and the new way, to transition over to what Microsoft was telling us was a better way and to do it in our own time? After all, we could do it freely with Windows 95 and the transition between File Manager and Windows Explorer. We could do it in XP and even Vista between the Windows 2000 cascading start menu and the XP style ‘most recently used, shortcuts plus cascading view’ that so many of us yearn to have back in Windows 8.

It was an own goal to try and forcibly advance the entire Windows ecosystem onto a new paradigm in the first place. To have tried to force it onto one that wasn’t evolved and had significant if not glaring gaps in its usability, documentation and general design was an even bigger, if not typically Microsoft own goal.

Since the announcement of the return of the start menu to Windows 8.1, I’ve been internalising thought over finally migrating from Windows 7 – with the demo video displaying the return of my much used start menu ‘application most recently used’ jump lists and a way to avoid the start screen completely. I’ll happily put up with live tiles, apps and Microsoft accounts in the knowledge that after 10 minutes I will have turned it all off.
Yet I also think that it is a mistake for Microsoft to release it into Windows 8.1. Windows 8 and its hastily rushed out 8.1 successor are nothing more than a consume psyche car crash. It’s been long stated and to say that it was a slow motion car crash is wholly wrong – it was blatantly obvious from the release candidates. To release the start menu against Windows 8.0, 8.1 or even as 8.2 would not be a commercially optimal decision.

“Windows 8.x sucks” is now vehemently burned into the psyche of consumer and business decision maker alike. I myself have sat in meetings and outright banned it from client deployment and purchasing. Windows 8 quite simply cannot be given to the average user. It isn’t fit for purpose and where funds permit the reaction that I am increasingly seeing from end users in both consumer and enterprise settings is simply to go and get Mac if they are forced into a corner over Windows 8 adoption. The reasons for this are multiple, varied and well trodden in all corners of the IT press. The common ground (which does not include the UI) usually include the app store eco system being weak, under developed and problematic while for enterprise the entire concept of “Microsoft account” is laughable if not somewhat sinister. That’s just the way it is.

Yet we only have to look back to late 2006 to see the reason why releasing the start menu back against 8.1 is a bad idea.

The RTM of Vista did more damage to Microsoft’s consumer reputation than quite possibly Windows 8 has or will ever manage. It didn’t matter that SP1 fixed Vista’s issues and that with its release, device manufacturers – who had procrastinated in developing drivers during the beta phases – had finally woken up and starting writing / offering better quality drivers for NT 6. It didn’t matter that RAM prices had come down and all those cheap, bad decision netbooks with 512MB of RAM could now take 10 minutes to boot instead of 25. Even by SP2 and Vista finally maturing, it didn’t matter. The damage was done. “Vista sucks”, that was all there was to it.

Windows 8 is tarred by the same brush; be it for different reasons. It is doomed to have an ever tightening noose around its neck caused by the decisions made ahead of its RTM. Sure, once integrated images are available Microsoft may start to sway business decision makers as well as technologists like myself towards offering up a more positive stance… but the consumer market?

Regrettably Microsoft learnt from the mistakes of the Vista release. To date they’ve stopped as many people as they possibly can from getting hold of a Windows 7 device. Rewind back to 2006 with Vista and Windows XP OS shipments at the point of purchase lingered right up until the release of Windows 7. Was this a good thing for Microsoft to learn? Sure, Windows 8 is now the highest selling OS Microsoft has ever produced – second only to Windows 7 that is. Does the consumer care? Well, no. Not really. The computing market is far larger, far lower cost now compared to 8 years ago. High sales volume was inexorable, especially once Microsoft closed the taps on the supply of Windows 7. It doesn’t mean that any of these increased numbers of people like what they have, it is simply a reflection of not knowing any better and the free market alternatives still being too niche at this point in time.

Since its release, I personally have only encountered one user who said they really like Windows 8 and in that would’t contemplate moving back down to Windows 7 (and they were a Surface user, not a laptop or desktop one). By far the majority of people that I speak to would like Windows 7 back if they had the option and could cost rationalise it and will ultimately suffer Windows 8 by ignoring most of its innovations and keeping their taskbar come desktop cluttered with launcher shortcuts.

The benefit of all of this has of course been to Apples favour. People are either paying to have 8 removed (difficult and occasionally impossible due to UEFI restrictions on consumer grade hardware), avoiding purchase altogether, going to non-Windows tablet devices and in the rapidly shrinking desktop space… I’m seeing an awful lot more Apple out there.

Apple may be many things; I am not a fan in any size, shape or form. My contempt for their software solutions is well known. Yet you would never see Apple committing this kind of carnal sin against their consumer base. They are more subtle, more discreet. Apple looks at the long term transitioning picture instead of a monolithic sledgehammer approach used by Microsoft to bully consumers into their own way of thinking.
Don’t get me wrong here, Apple always gets it way. The difference is that by the time they do get their own way, hardly anyone who notices is going to complain, the changes smooth, sleek, refined. Those who do complain are by this point a distinct minority. Progress made. Consumer base increased. Negative publicity: nil to irrelevant.

Of course I would personally like to see Windows 8.1 with the option to toggle the start menu / start screen on and off. Of course the Start Screen should continue to exist – on the Surface RT it works, it makes sense, it’s good. Here it is certainly better than using the desktop environment. Yet for Microsoft to have a happy release, to regain their consumer reputation as well as their business reputation the answer is simple.

Don’t like Windows 8/8.1? Here is Windows 9. We’ve listened to YOU, we’ve refined the offering based upon YOU, your wishes, your feedback. If at this point you are feeling an innate sense of déjà vu, this strategy was itself the drum beat behind the marketing strategy for Windows 7 – Windows that you (I) created.

This focus, strategy and tone based around the concept of ‘you’ was what was missing at the Windows 8.1 start menu announcement a week or so ago – a conciliatory tone, even an apology was itself absent. If they had given one, I think many (including myself) would have respected them far more for giving it than anything that the wet attempt to make it look like it was a planned change has done.

An even more critical message would be for people to hear that if they have an 8.0 or 8.1 system, their investment will run Windows 9 with no performance loss. For Surface users, I’m sure they’d like to hear that they’ll be getting it for free. For everyone else, how about a Mac of old style “£19.99” upgrade cost from 8.0 or 8.1 up to Windows 9. Even for Windows 7 users, for which a discounted offering which would make sense as a way to eliminate platform fragmentation and increase exposure to the Windows App Store ecosystem – in turn making the Metro environment that little bit sweeter for developers and consumers alike. If that idea sounds overtly familiar it’s because it is. This was Apple’s greatest decision of 2013; defragment their desktop ecosystem in one hit, open up their app store and APIs to as many people as possible in order to make lots more money and wrap it up in a double edged goodwill gesture named Mavericks.

At this stage does it matter if Windows 9 is Windows 8.1 with a start menu and not much else? Microsoft has done a lot of damage to the Windows brand on its own over the last 8 years when factoring in both the Vista and the Windows 8 debacle. It will take time to undo that. Yet if letting people have their moment in slamming Windows 8 into becoming a distant memory is the thing which allows the healing to take place, isn’t that commercially better for everyone in the Microsoft hegemony?