Friday, September 7, 2012

Windows 8 - Fourth Pass: Start Screen

One of the key functions of Windows 8 is the Start Screen. This is key; as it has replaced the Start Menu we are all used to. In early releases the Start Screen was called the Metro Interface and not only referred to the Start Screen but the touch interface that has been baked into Windows 8 to make it more touch screen and tablet friendly.

Just before Windows 8 was released to manufacturing Microsoft stopped referring to it as the Metro Interface and Metro based apps and started calling it the Start Screen. Rumor is that this was to appease a European company that was already calling their software products and interface “Metro” but I think it was an attempt to calm fears over there not being anything in Windows 8 called “Start”, be it Start Menu or Start Screen. Brilliant, release a product and then change the name.

The thinking is that you won’t use the Start Screen much if you are on a desktop while you will use it all the time if you are on a tablet or other touch screen enabled device. So far, I believe Microsoft is very wrong on both accounts.

Somehow, Microsoft got it in their heads that most Windows users don’t use the Start Menu very often but have shortcuts to everything on their desktop or pinned to the taskbar. I’d like to know how they figured that out because this user does most of his work via the Start Menu. I prefer to keep a clean desktop, my physical desktop, and my computer desktop are both kept pretty clean as projects and tasks are completed. As such only common tools and programs are on my desktop. I don’t have a shortcut on my desktop to the Control Panel or to my Network Settings as those are easy to get from the Start Menu. I also don’t have shortcuts to my recent documents as I got those from the Start Menu. The Start Menu is also where I would go for apps I don’t use very often, like say Notepad.

With the removal of the Start Menu in Windows 8, I now have to completely change my workflow, and that is something that most business users are going to baulk at. For example, in order for me to get to the Notepad now I have to press the Windows Key, and then start typing “Notepad” on the Start Screen. I then have to select Apps, Settings, or Files and then I can select the shortcut for Notepad, which will take me back to my desktop and open up Notepad. In what world is that faster? Alternatively, I can start cluttering my desktop with shortcuts so I can avoid the Start Screen completely.

For sake of argument, let’s pretend that I decide to embrace the Start Screen and so I start creating shortcuts to apps on the Start Screen itself so I don’t have to search as often and so I don’t have to clutter up my desktop. This can easily be done however, what you end up with are several pages of tiles you have to click or swipe through and most of the tiles take you back to the desktop where you started from to launch the app in the first place. Am I the only one baffled by this?

The only way this makes any sense is if you are using a tablet or touch device and need to find something. Using the Start Menu with your finger is a bit difficult and from that perspective, the Start Screen works. However, on a desktop using the Start Screen when you are already on your desktop is just as difficult. I get the concept of making Windows 8 a single OS for both touch and non-touch enabled devices but I think the way they’ve done it is wrong. A better implementation would be the Start Screen on touch-enabled devices and the good old Start Menu for those on non-touch devices.

Later this year I look forward to getting my hands on a touch enabled tablet or device with a physical keyboard so I can more fully test out the application of the Start Screen and the lack of a Start Menu.