Microsoft may backtrack on Start button in Windows 8

Analysts urge company to recant design ideology as nod to customer complaints

Microsoft may recant its Windows 8 design theology, bloggers reported Tuesday, by offering Windows 8 users an option to bypass the "Modern" UI and by restoring the Start button and menu to the beleaguered operating system.

A pair of longtime Microsoft hands, Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet and Tom Warren of The Verge, citing unnamed sources and messages on Windows discussion forums, said Microsoft was considering those tweaks for an upcoming update, called "Windows Blue" by some and "Windows 8.1" by others. The upgrade, the first of a planned faster development and release tempo, is allegedly slated for an October debut.

Warren pointed to evidence that Microsoft might allow boot-to-desktop with Windows 8.1. Foley added that the Redmond, Wash., developer was also pondering a return of the Windows Start button and associated menu.

Analysts welcomed the news, assuming it's accurate.

"I don't see this as a defeat but as a good thing," said Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy. "It's shows you're willing to make changes based on customer feedback."

The tweaks would be a concession for Microsoft. Publicly, the company has repeatedly maintained that its design decisions were correct and its executives have suggested that users would, in time, learn to live without a Start button and grow to appreciate the Start screen.

Today, Microsoft declined to comment on the reports.

But contrary to Microsoft's assertions that the dual user interfaces (UIs) in Windows 8 were "fast and fluid," customers have barraged the company's blogs and the Web in general for more than a year with complaints.

They were most upset about the disappearance of the iconic 17-year-old Start button and menu, but also griped that they weren't able to boot right to the "Classic" user interface (UI), or desktop, rather than first hitting the tile-style Start screen. Both issues have been sores spots among longtime Windows users, and at the top of virtually everyone's most-hated lists.

Even Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen took Windows 8 to task, calling it "puzzling" and "confusing" when last year he urged the company that made him a billionaire to offer an option that set the desktop as the default mode on boot.

And they voted with their wallets, either by staying away from Windows 8 -- and shying from any new PC purchases -- or if forced to the new OS, by supporting a cottage industry of third-party add-ons that restored both boot-to-desktop and the Start button. StarDock, for example, claimed earlier this year that its $5 Start8 add-on had been downloaded 3 million times, with thousands of people trying it daily.

Even with that on the line, StarDock CEO Brad Wardell applauded Microsoft's presumed move. "I hope Microsoft adds back the Start button and a boot to desktop option," said Wardell in an email Tuesday. "While we would miss the short-term revenue boost of Start8, it is important to keep the Windows software ecosystem healthy and growing."

The talk today suggests that Microsoft has rethought not only the design of Windows 8, but also its strategy.

"The feedback they've had should tell them that people are not ready to live in the Modern UI, so they need to make [Windows 8's desktop] as good as, if not better, than Windows 7," said J.P. Gownder, an analyst with Forrester Research. "When the tipping point happens, perhaps in a couple of years as the Windows Store fills up, when all the key apps are there, then they can rethink."

And withdraw the Start button yet again, Gownder meant.

Most outside Microsoft believe the company's decision stemmed from a misguided touch-first doctrine, fueled by the belief that only if customers were forced to run apps would they buy apps, and that only by coercing them could Microsoft quickly create a pool of users large enough to attract app developers to the new platform.

Gownder understood that thinking, even appreciated it, but still said it had been wrong.

"I understand Microsoft wanting to drive charms," Gownder said, referring to the set of persistent icons for chores such as searching, sharing content or accessing the OS settings. "There is an argument toward design purity, to reimagine Windows, and that people must become comfortable with the charms. That's legitimate. But the overwhelming feedback was that perhaps the train was taking off a little too early."

Moorhead argued that backpedaling wouldn't significantly hurt Microsoft's push toward an app ecosystem.

"This is very positive, because it doesn't take away from the experience of 'Metro,' " he said, using the older term for the Modern UI. " It just gives users a way to get back to Metro that's obvious. It doesn't say anything about Metro, doesn't say it's good or bad. It doesn't change that argument at all."

Gownder urged Microsoft to backtrack on the boot-to-desktop and Start button controversies, noting in a longer blog post Tuesday that the horse had left the barn -- users were already adopting Start button emulators -- and that the company should accept the inevitable, if only to keep its enterprise customers happy.

"Microsoft needs to step back and do this," Gownder said. "Enterprises are not about to support one of these workarounds. For them, this [functionality] needs to be in the OS layer."

Redmond has done 180-degree turns before. When customers howled about Windows Vista's intrusive User Account Control (UAC), the prompts designed to warn of risk when installing and running software, Microsoft dramatically reduced UAC's impact in Windows 7 three years later.

Now it has an advantage, as it's committed to a faster release cycle -- one executive called it "continuous" -- and assuming the leaks are correct, can modify Windows 8 in a third of the time.

"Microsoft misstepped a number of ways with Vista," Gownder said. "But they did change it. They have an established market and a lot to offer, and [Windows Blue] is, by no means, the last chance for Windows 8."

What a reversal will not do is magically turn around depressed PC sales, on which Microsoft is reliant for Windows 8 sales. Offering options to boot to the desktop or restore Start functionality won't change the dynamics of the industry, where consumers in particular are buying less expensive touch-enabled tablets rather than replacing older Windows computers.

But what if? What if Microsoft's design ideology had been more flexible before it shipped Windows 8? Would it have made a difference? Would Windows 8 devices be flying off shelves?

Not likely.

"Had Microsoft added the option of restoring the Start button and boot-to-desktop, they would be in a slightly better position than they are today, but not much," said Moorhead. "In fact, Metro app development would be behind the curve had they added the options."

The UI mistakes, Moorhead added, were secondary to a more fundamental misreading of the market and the available technologies. "In retrospect, Microsoft should have marketed and built a more pervasive and high quality touch pad experience. "They misjudged the number of touch-based devices that would be out, and under-emphasized the quality experience of a good touch pad."

Apple, for instance, has ignored touch-based computers thus far, instead depending on larger touch pads built into their notebooks and on the gesture support they've integrated with OS X.

Had Microsoft taken that approach for Windows 8, it could have avoided the entire touch screen issue -- shortages caused by low yields, and corresponding high prices -- Moorhead asserted.

"Unlike touch display functionality, which can add $100 to the [bill of materials], a quality touch pad may cost as little as an incremental $5," Moorhead said.

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.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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