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Operating Systems

How Microsoft can improve the Start menu

The Start menu is set to reappear in a future version of Windows. What can Microsoft do to make it more efficient and easier to organize?

Is your Start menu cluttered with too many folders for your programs? Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Microsoft killed the familiar Windows Start menu when it launched Windows 8, a decision that caused consternation among many PC users who came to rely on it. The software giant has since revealed that the Start menu will return in a future version of Windows. That sounds like good news. But the traditional Start menu, even in Windows 7, is flawed in one key way. Virtually every program you install creates its own Start menu folder, ultimately resulting in a long, unwieldy mess.

If you run Windows 7, click on the Start orb and then click on the All Programs setting. How many folders appear? Probably way too many. The more programs you install, the more cluttered the All Programs menu becomes, especially with folders, subfolders, and shortcuts for items you may not even need. In Windows 7, such a setup forces you to keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling down the list until you find the folder or shortcut you want. What can Microsoft do to fix this?

Well, Microsoft does already offer ways to manage your Start menu programs. You can drag and drop folders, subfolders, and shortcuts from one location to another directly in the menu. But that process can be clumsy as it's too easy to drag an item to the wrong location. You can right-click a folder or shortcut to cut it, delete it, or rename it. Deleting and renaming an item this way is relatively painless, but cutting it and then pasting it somewhere else can be tricky.

You can right-click on the All Programs menu and then click the setting for Open or Open All Users. That action opens your Start Menu Programs area in Windows Explorer where you can cut, copy, paste, drag, and drop items from one spot to another. But again, the process is way too clumsy. Windows does offer a menu through which you can customize the Start menu. That's helpful, but it doesn't address the overall challenge of organizing your Start menu programs.

In redesigning the Start menu for the next major version of Windows, Microsoft has a chance to fix the organizational pitfalls. And here's one idea for doing so: create a dedicated tool to organize your Start menu programs. The Start menu itself should offer a setting that says simply: "Organize Your Start Menu Programs." Clicking that setting would open a user-friendly tool that would let you easily manage all the folders and arrange all the shortcuts much more effortlessly than you can now through dragging and dropping or by using Windows Explorer.

A tool to organize your Start menu could even offer modes for beginners and more-advanced users. A step-by-step wizard could be available for beginning users with suggestions on how and where to organize the Start menu programs most efficiently. A more direct option could be available for advanced users who know how and where they want to organize their Start menu programs but just need a quick and easy tool.

At its Build conference in April, Microsoft showed off an early version of the Start menu destined for the next version of Windows. The menu was actually half traditional Start menu and half Start screen. That's fine. The new Start menu should definitely tap into the Metro, aka Modern, aspects of Windows 8. But unless Microsoft provides a better way to organize all your Start menu programs, the same problems of clutter and confusion will plague Windows users in the future.