Lenovo gives Windows 8 vote of no confidence by bundling Start menu stand-in

Emphasizes the traditional Windows desktop over the Metro UI with Pokki Start button, Start menu and alternative app store

Lenovo, the world's largest computer maker, announced today that its Windows 8 PCs will come bundled with the Pokki Start button and menu replacement, along with its desktop mode-oriented app store.

The pre-loading will kick off with Lenovo's consumer notebooks and desktops, including IdeaPad and ThinkPad laptops, and IdeaCentre desktops, Lenovo said.

It was San Diego-based SweetLabs' biggest deal yet with a PC OEM (original equipment manufacturer), and followed a smaller-scale bundling arrangement the two-year-old privately-held company struck with Acer earlier this summer. SweetLabs is the maker and publisher of Pokki.

Lenovo's decision to add the Pokki Start button and menu to Windows 8 was a thumb in the eye to Microsoft, which while initially resisting calls to restore the iconic user interface (UI) components, gave way to the return of a Start button-like UI element in Windows 8.1, the update slated to hit the Windows Store Oct. 17.

But Microsoft drew the line at restoring the Start menu. Instead, the new Start-style button in Windows 8.1 simply steers users to the tile-based, touch-first Start screen.

"We're not trying to compete with Microsoft," said Chester Ng, co-founder and chief marketing officer of SweetLabs, in an interview Thursday. "We just want to improve the Windows 8 experience, help where we can and fill any holes."

Ng acknowledged, however, that if Microsoft had not departed from an 18-year tradition by ditching the Start button and menu, there would have been no need for the replacements that SweetLabs and others, such as Stardock, offer.

That Lenovo gave Windows 8 a vote of no confidence by striking the deal with SweetLabs was no surprise: Microsoft's newest operating system has failed to boost flagging PC sales. OEMs of all kinds and sizes, including Microsoft itself, are trying almost everything, including deep discounts, touch-ready devices and radical hybrids that mutate from notebook to tablet and back, to get consumers to buy PCs rather than tablets or smartphones.

Along with the Start button replacement for Windows 8, Pokki on Lenovo PCs will include the package's app organizer and launcher, dubbed "Pokki Menu," and an app store.

Pokki Menu lets users organize apps much like on a smartphone or tablet screen by dragging and dropping; those apps can be launched directly from the menu.

Its app store features x86 desktop applications, the kind that run on the traditional Windows desktop UI, as well as apps designed for the Pokki platform. In the near future, the store will also be able to recommend and direct Lenovo PC owners to Microsoft's Windows Store for acquiring the touch-enabled programs once pegged with "Metro," but now generally referred to as "Modern" or "Windows 8 Store" apps.

Pokki's app store generates recommendations based on what users launch on their PCs, said Ng, a feature that was attractive to Lenovo.

Traditionally, OEMs bundle software, usually trial versions, with their hardware -- critics label it "crapware" -- as a way to squeeze more revenue out of the thin-margin systems. Software makers pay OEMs a commission on sales of their full-featured applications or games when users upgrade to a paid version.

But those bundles are static -- the same for everyone -- Ng said. And with the lead time necessary for building, shipping and selling a PC, they're often stale by the time they reach customers.

Pokki's app store, on the other hand, will let Lenovo owners decide which apps they want to download. And because it's Web-based, offerings can be updated instantly to, for example, pitch a new edition of "Angry Birds" the day its publisher, Finnish game maker Rovio, launches it.

Lenovo will be paid by SweetLabs out of the latter's portion of the revenue that app developers make from the Pokki app store. While the apps themselves are free -- Pokki's app store has no purchase "cart" -- developers upsell customers using their own in-app payment options.

"We generate revenue from app developers who are looking for promotion and distribution," said Ng, "then share that revenue with our partners, including OEMs."

Pokki's Start button and menu, and its app store are compatible with both Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, Ng confirmed, and will also appear on Lenovo's Windows 8.1 notebook and desktop PCs when those ship later this year.

Users with existing Windows 7 or Windows 8 PCs can download the free Pokki suite from SweetLabs' website.

Pokki in Windows 8
Pokki restores a Start button and modified Start menu to Windows 8. (Image: SweetLabs.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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