April 16, 2013
ZDNet’s legendary Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley reported on an intriguing possibility for the rumored forthcoming Windows Blue update to Windows 8: That Microsoft could bring back the Start Button for desktop mode and/or allow users to boot directly to the desktop.
These are features that Microsoft should indeed provide to its customers in the next release.
Some analysts and designers might argue against these moves. To truly reimagine Windows, the argument might go, users must be taught a completely new way to navigate. Key to the Windows 8/RT user interface (UI) are charms, which take the place of the Start Button and which provide a simplified navigation system that’s particularly suited to touch screens. Users should segue to charms full time, even when they are in Desktop Mode, if they are to build a bridge to the modern UI.
Those claims might hold some truth. Yet Microsoft should reinstitute the Start Button anyway, because:
- Users aren’t living in the modern UI environment alone yet. While estimates of the numbers vary, the Windows Store is widely perceived as not having as many apps as competing ecosystems and of missing important (named) apps. For example, a Twitter app only came to Windows 8 in March, 2013. As one PC World reviewer put it recently, users can survive in the modern UI environment alone, but “the Windows Store simply doesn’t have the apps you need to support a full-time workload.” Until the Windows Store app ecosystem expands, it doesn’t make sense to handicap users of Desktop Mode software.
- Hybrids and convertibles are more like laptop replacements than tablets. A device like Microsoft’s Surface Pro – with its dual Intel Core processor and detachable keyboard – can act as a laptop replacement for some classes of users. As such, Desktop Mode remains integral to the user experience, meaning that it should work at least as well as Windows 7.
- Windows 8 isn’t optimal on non-touchscreen devices. The design motifs for Windows 8’s modern UI really shine in a touch-first environment. But some of that luster disappears on non-touchscreen devices. For users without touchscreen on their devices, the desktop experience needs to remain top-notch. Otherwise, they might as well have stuck with Windows 7.
- Users are already using Start Button emulators and work-arounds. As usual, when users are unhappy, they find work-arounds. Numerous Start Button emulators with names like StartIsBack, Pokki, and StartMenu are proliferating — and many of them are free. Yet I&O departments can’t support users easily with these emulators and would prefer a Start Button that’s simply part of the OS.
We live in what Forrester calls The Age of the Customer, a time in which companies that obsess about their customers earn a competitive advantage in their markets. During the period when the Windows Store’s modern UI apps continue to grow in number and sophistication, Windows 8 users need to have the strongest possible Desktop Mode experience. Empowering users with familiar tools wouldn’t be a sign of surrender, but rather a sign that Microsoft listens to its customers.
J. P. Gownder is a Vice President and Principal Analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @jgownder