The Windows Start Button Is Dead! Long Live the Windows Start Button!

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Is Microsoft eliminating the Start button–a user-interface element that’s practically synonymous with Windows itself–from Windows 8? Last week, that was the scuttlebutt. This week, Windows superblogger Paul Thurrott says that “Windows 8 is NOT dropping the Start button.” But it turns out that both of these conflicting ideas are true.

If you stubbornly believe that the Start button is by definition an on-screen button,  then yes, it’s going away. You will, however, be able to hover your mouse button near where the Start button would have been to access the features it would have offered if it was there.

Paul’s stance that the Start button isn’t leaving us at all is based on the fact that Microsoft will mandate that Windows 8 computers have a physical Windows button–apparently an updated version of the Windows key on all modern PC keyboards. The Start button, in other words, isn’t disappearing so much as moving from software to hardware, so it’s always available no matter where you are in Windows.

As Paul says, whether there’s a Start button or not, it’s not going to be the primary method of launching applications in Windows 8. Microsoft intends for the new Metro interface’s Start screen–a sort of modernized, full-screen, touch-enabled Start button and menu–to do the job. The old Windows desktop remains for the sake of compatibility with existing software, but it’s pretty clear that Microsoft sees it as part of Windows’ past, not its future.

The decisiveness with which Microsoft intends to demote the Windows interface that hasn’t changed much since 1995 is one of many fascinating things about Windows 8. Rather than booting you into a familiar environment and letting you optionally switch into Metro, the company is flipping things around and forcing every Windows 8 user to think in terms of Metro first. As far as I know, there won’t even be an option to boot directly into the old-school Windows desktop.

Considering that Microsoft is still struggling to convince millions of people to dump the comfortable relic known as Windows XP, expecting Windows users to dive head-first into Metro’s brave new world is a big deal. It’s either the boldest thing Microsoft has ever done, or one of the dumbest–or maybe both. And everything the company does to remove the elements that Windows users expect–such as the traditional Start button–makes Windows 8 feel less like an upgrade and more like a new operating system.