Microsoft has just released some information about Windows 8.1 and the Start button isn't being reinstated. If you have read other headlines and new reports that say that it is, then you are simply being misled.
It is true that a button is being added to the desktop taskbar, but unlike the Windows 7 Start button this doesn't produce a hierarchical folder structure containing executables. Instead it takes you to the "flat-file" Windows 8 Start Screen.
This isn't the Start button you were looking for...
Is Microsoft just trying to be funny by placing a button where the old start button used to be, but with completely different functionality? It certainly has allowed a lot of news reports to carry the headline along the lines of "Windows 8.1 Brings Back The Start Button". Some have approached the truth by adding "sort of" or something similar.
If you click the new button you are transported to the Start screen which is a big context switch if you were working on the desktop. What is worse, the Start screen does not present you with a set of applications that you might want to run arranged in a hierarchical structure. It presents you with live tiles, which are about as close as WinRT gets to multitasking. This is fine for a touch-based tablet, but it is nonsense for a desktop environment.
The new start button doesn't appear in the WinRT environment, but if you put the mouse to the bottom corner of the screen it appears.
For any Windows desktop user the Start button is the biggest issue, but the facility to boot directly to the desktop would also be nice. The blog post giving the details doesn't say that this will be possible, but it does mutter vague words about being about to boot into something other than the Start screen.
In addition you can now set up the Start screen so that it shows all your programs (in a mostly unorganized mess) or just your favourites. This is why the Start screen isn't a replacement for the Start button/menu. You can also access all settings from an improved settings app so you don't have to hunt for the desktop Control panel. Obviously, having one app to do the job is a good idea but lots of users would prefer to use the Control panel and not have to lose time doing a context switch.
There are a few more improvements - new tile sizes, universal search facility, apps can run on multiple monitors, apps can run in multiple, but not overlapping, windows, better integration with SkyDrive - and so on.
But do you notice the common theme here?
What's in 8.1 for the desktop user who just wants to get on with using desktop applications?
Answer - nothing that I've found.
This isn't an attempt by Microsoft to make its desktop users happier and get them to accept WinRT and modern apps.
OK, so you might be able to boot to the desktop, but when you hit the shiny new Start button you are going to see the Start screen complete with its matrix of live tiles. Is this going to make a desktop user stop and say "Hey there's the app I've been looking for all my life" - no it isn't. What it is going to do is to make the desktop user wonder why the old Start button, and its hierarchical and customizable menu, couldn't have been put back at least as an option.
Many desktop users who have moved to Windows 8 and are surviving by putting third party utilities, which restore the Start button and menu, are going to be avoiding 8.1, even though it is going to be free to download, because they will fear that the new pseudo Start button will break their third party Start button. This isn't good.
Windows 8 is two operating systems in one. The Start screen and modern apps may be great for touch tablets and similar, and I know there are users who think is is great. However, from a usability point of view, it is a disaster on the desktop.
This could be fixed with a single concession - make the Start button and its menu an option as well as boot to desktop.
Microsoft have played us all for fools.
We wanted the Start button back and it gives us a button in the same location that does something completely different. Perhaps it is our fault that our inaccurate terminology allowed Microsoft to claim that it is listening to us. Perhaps we should have said we want the Start menu back.
So the bottom line is - no change. Microsoft hasn't fixed the desktop environment in Windows 8.1 and it hasn't restored the Start button/menu.
More about Windows 8.1 at Build 2013 if you are still interested.
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