Microsoft likely to bring back Start menu in future Windows update

If rumors are right, Redmond will mimic Stardock's tools that already offer Start menu and 'Metro' apps on the desktop

Microsoft will bring back the Start menu to Windows 8 and let users run "Metro" apps inside windows on the desktop, restoring traditional elements to its newest operating system, according to a report by a long-time Microsoft watcher.

Paul Thurrott, citing anonymous sources, claimed Monday that the next update for Windows, which other pundits have pegged for the spring of 2015, will offer options for both a Start menu and on-desktop execution of the touch-centric "Modern," nee "Metro," apps.

In October, Microsoft restored a pseudo-Start button in Windows 8.1, and gave users the option of circumventing the tile-style Start screen by booting directly to the conventional desktop. However, it declined to reinstate a Start menu.

But neither of the alleged future additions will be, well, new: Users have been able to restore the Start menu and run windowed Metro apps for months.

Plymouth, Mich.-based Stardock, a company best known for creating Windows customization tools, has offered Start8, a Start button-and-menu, since March 2012, months before Windows 8's release. A year later Stardock launched ModernMix, which lets Windows 8 and 8.1 customers shun the new Metro user interface (UI) by running apps on the classic desktop.

The tools run $5 each, and are included in Stardock's wider-ranging Object Desktop, which costs $50 for an annual subscription.

Microsoft's retracing of steps already taken by Stardock -- and to be fair, other developers too, including some who give away their work -- has not gone unnoticed. Thurrott, for example, pointed out that Metro apps can already run on the classic desktop using ModernMix.

Is Microsoft simply exploiting Stardock as an R&D center, commandeering its concepts? If so, Brad Wardell, founder and CEO of Stardock, won't complain.

"One of the selling points of our software over the years has been that buying it is like getting a future version of Windows today," Wardell said in an email reply to questions. "We have no problem with Microsoft using what we do as a resource for improving Windows. Windows 8 is a really good OS. It just needs to decide what it wants to be."

But Microsoft's anticipated move will not be trouble-free for Stardock, Wardell acknowledged.

"In the short run, there is always some pain," Wardell said. "Start8 and ModernMix have brought us millions of new customers, so we definitely would miss that influx of new users."

Indeed it would. While Stardock has been cranking out code since 1991, Start8 boosted its profile well above its earlier reputation as a game maker and the creator of WindowBlinds, a suite of Windows customization tools that harked back to 1998, three years before the still-going-strong Windows XP shipped.

In October, for instance, Stardock boasted of a major increase in sales to enterprises, saying that "single order quantities of 1,000 Start8 units or greater immediately increased" after Microsoft revealed that Windows 8.1 would lack a Start menu on the desktop.

Even so, Wardell welcomed the rumored additions to Windows. "I don't know if Microsoft will bring back the Start menu in a future edition of Windows, but I hope they do," he said. "Our company relies on Windows to be a healthy ecosystem and Windows 8 has created some difficulties because many of our customers aren't upgrading to it. While programs like Start8 or ModernMix are helpful, it would be better if Microsoft integrated [their] functionality into the OS."

The more Microsoft makes Windows 8 and its follow-ons more acceptable to more customers, the better Stardock will do, argued Wardell.

"In the longer term, it would enable us to create new software that would further improve the Windows environment," Wardell said. "There's a lot of work to be done on Windows still, and it would be helpful if Microsoft began integrating the things we have so that we can build further on that."

With Microsoft aping Stardock, some have wondered why the Redmond, Wash. giant doesn't just snap up the smaller firm. "I sure hope Microsoft buys Stardock as part of its move to a better future," opined a reader of InfoWorld, a sister publication of Computerworld, this week. "Buy Stardock and integrate Start8 and ModernMix, and honestly, they're most of the way there."

"That's kind of him to say. It has come up a number of times over the years," Wardell said when asked about the reader's suggestion. "[But] I think the Windows ecosystem works best when there are external developers who can move quickly, and without any political pressure deliver solutions that the Windows consumer base is looking for," he said. "Then Microsoft can pick and choose what would make sense as part of the base OS."

Stardock sells its Windows 8 tools on its website, but because they are not Metro apps, not through the Windows Store.

Windows with ModernMix
Microsoft will reportedly add on-the-desktop Metro apps to a future release of Windows 8, duplicating what Stardock's $5 ModernMix already does. (Image: Stardock.)

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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