Windows 95 to Windows 8: Microsoft's love affair with the Start menu

CNET editor Dong Ngo gives his thoughts on Windows 8's Start screen and Microsoft's creativity, and lack thereof, via the implementation of the Start menu.

It all started with Windows 95.
It all started with Windows 95. Microsoft

Judging from the Developer Preview version of Windows 8 , Microsoft has finally decided to change the Windows Start menu in a big way. And it's about time. The last time this happened was with Windows 95, when the Start menu was first introduced. Over the years, this menu has been the signature feature of the operating system, a feature that represents both the innovation and the stasis of the software giant.

In Windows 8, the Ctrl-Esc combo key, which shares the same functionality as the Windows key, now brings up something entirely different: the Metro Start Screen. This screen resembles the home screen of Windows Phone 7 and displays buttons for applications as well as shortcuts to the OS' settings. While Windows desktop users will likely find this change a little hard to swallow at first, tablet and mobile users will find it a lot more intuitive for touch-screen devices. Personally, it reminds me of the evolution between Windows 3.1 and Windows 95. It's a welcome change.

In Windows 8, the Start menu is no longer what it used to be.
In Windows 8, the Start menu is no longer what it used to be. Dong Ngo/CNET

Back in the '90s, after years of having fun with MS DOS' command prompts, I was told that the Windows operating system (then version 3.1) was named after all the windows in its UI. That may be where the OS got its name, but it's not what set it apart, as most, if not all, operating systems use windows; what made Windows 95 different and helped it become a huge success was, arguably, the Start menu. For the first time, you could quickly access programs, documents, and computer settings without having to Alt-Tab through endless windows with the Program Manager used in Windows 3.1.

This new and revolutionary way of managing the OS continued through different versions of Windows, including Windows NT 4.x, Windows 98, Windows 98 SE, Windows Me, and Windows 2000, and evolved to its fullest six years later with Windows XP. From a static single-pane menu in Windows 95, the Start menu was now a double-pane, dynamic menu that enabled you to highlight recently added programs and show shadows under menus, among many other things.

Microsoft should have stopped there and invented something new with Windows Vista, the way Apple did with its Mac OS X. But, instead the Start menu persisted with Vista, gaining an integrated search function, which was a welcome feature that made it possible to quickly find items on the menu as well as specific documents stored on the computer. However, by then the Start menu had become too bloated and things started to get confusing and hard to find within the menu itself. On top of that, after a decade, the Start menu, which has its own inherent shortcomings, now seemed stagnant and old.

And yet Microsoft stuck with it one more time with Windows 7--an OS that has enjoyed a much better reception than its immediate predecessor. One of the reasons for that is likely that Windows Vista set the bar so low that almost anything would have been better. Also, by the time Windows 7 was released, the prices of hardware components, especially system memory, had gone down significantly.

Bringing the Start menu to the mobile device is by far the biggest example of Microsoft's lack of innovation.
Bringing the Start menu to the mobile device is the biggest example of Microsoft's lack of innovation. Dong Ngo/CNET

The absolute worst thing that Microsoft ever did with the Start menu was to bring it to mobile platforms via Windows CE and Windows Mobile for smartphones, such as the AT&T Tilt . It's such a pain having to use the stylus to work with the tiny Start menu and even tinier items on the little screen. This is where Microsoft's creativity hit bottom. The company was so indulged in the success of Windows 95 and the Start menu that it forgot to think out of the box when it came to mobile computing, the way Apple had done so brilliantly with the original iPhone.

It's a little late in the game but now Microsoft seems to have gotten it right again with Windows Phone 7 and the Metro UI. The company is now reversing Windows Phone 7's UI back into the desktop version of Windows, showing immense ambition in the goal of offering one OS for both desktop and mobile platforms. It's still a little early to say if this is a good move, but it's definitely a big move from Microsoft--and in this case, change is indeed good.

Hopefully, unlike with the implementation of the Ribbon interface, Microsoft will give us the option to switch between the Metro Start Screen and the traditional Start menu in the final version of Windows 8. Despite the popularity of touch-screen tablets, the death of the desktop computer is definitely not happening anytime soon.

If you have also tried out the Windows 8 Developer Preview, which is available to the public, by the way, what do you think of its new user interface?

About the author

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews networking and storage products, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

 

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