The Return of the Windows Start Menu: Good for Us, Good for Microsoft

The next version of Windows may restore a feature it never should have lost.

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Ever since the details about Windows 8’s massive changes became known, people have been talking about one of the biggest ones: the elimination of the Start button, Windows’ single most iconic feature. Pundits like me wrote about its elimination, and we wrote about its return in Windows 8.1.

But really, we’ve been obsessing about the wrong feature. When people find Windows 8 disorienting, it’s not because it doesn’t have a Start button. It’s because Microsoft ditched the traditional Start menu in favor of the wildly different Metro-style Windows start screen. The company keeps telling us that the start screen can do anything the Start menu could do and a whole lot more, but you know that a product has problems when its maker and a meaningful percentage of its most loyal users are at odds over basic functionality.

Now Windows guru Paul Thurrott is reporting that an upcoming version of Windows — possibly the big-deal one code-named “Threshold” — will bring back the Start menu, at least as an option. If so — and if it’s really the Start menu as we knew it — it’s a delayed capitulation on the part of Microsoft, which probably expected that only dead-enders would want an old-school Start menu by 2014.

It would be good news for the folks — there are millions of them — who find Windows 8.x intimidating because it has so little in common with any version of Windows before it. And by making a good-faith effort to ease the transition, Microsoft would greatly reduce the incentive for anyone to stubbornly cling to Windows 7 or, heaven help us, Windows XP. Which means that it would be good for its own bottom line.

Still, I wonder: Would Windows 8 adoption have gotten off to a meaningfully better start — thereby lifting the entire troubled PC industry — if Microsoft hadn’t waved a red flag in the face of so many customers by dropping the Start button and menu in the first place?