Start of a blog; end of the Start button

Stop all the Start button fretting; it’s a new user interface that ought to be, well, new

This is the start of what I hope will be a long run for the Mostly Microsoft blog, and what better to start with than the issue of the Start button (or lack thereof) in Windows 8?

It’s gone, according to screen shots of the beta version. Its function will be taken over with a tile on the Start screen, and it will also lurk unseen in the bottom left corner of the screen where it always was only now concealed in an invisible hotspot ready to pop out when it’s moused-over.

At first I thought, well so what? Things change. But that was a week ago. Then I saw the continuing reaction – alarm, shock, betrayal, dismay - and realized many people hate change so much that the Start button’s demise is no small thing.

As in all things Windows 8, nobody can be sure about anything until they see the next release of the platform, now scheduled for Feb. 29 and called Windows 8 Consumer Preview. But assuming it really is gone, what does it mean?

First it’s a nod to the touchscreen capabilities of Windows 8 and to its Metro interface. Pressing tiles on the new Start screen gets you the same functionality as hitting the current Start button and picking from the popup menu.

Second it’s not really gone from the bottom left-hand corner, so when people’s muscle memory drives them there, it will still work.

And third, according to Microsoft’s Building Windows 8 blog, when the operating system runs on ARM-based machines, the devices never really turn off anyway, so they really can’t be started. If they can’t be started, who needs a Start button? This is a small point because to the user these merely comatose machines will seem to be turned off entirely, and they’ll think they’re starting it.

The upside of not having to actually start is that the machines spring to life more quickly when they’re fired up again. The deep sleep the device falls into, called Connected Standby, minimizes the power the OS and applications consume so the thing can remain in that state for a week without killing the battery. This is an important design goal of Windows 8: conserving power to prolong battery life, an acknowledgement that Microsoft hopes the operating system will be used on portable devices like tablets.

This tablet use is probably a strong reason for ditching the Start button. Users will be running these them mainly via touchscreens, which arguably navigate more quickly tapping nice fat tiles clustered toward the center of the screen and readily slid to by passing a finger over the display than by popping up a menu from the corner and seeking the desired option. Plus it’s a new operating system on a new device (for Microsoft) and it’s got a new user interface with new tools for getting around. The Start button is a vestige of an earlier age.

The way Microsoft is easing out the Start button may seem profane to some (it’s been an icon since Windows 95) and indecisive to others (it’s gone but it’s not gone), but actually it takes a middle ground that should help ease users to the new Metro interface, which is worth a lot more attention than the Start button.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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