Start button's return to Windows 8? Probably, but there's no guarantee

Top Windows engineer says 'we're thinking' about restoring the iconic UI component, but stops short of promising

Microsoft's head of Windows development on Tuesday came close to promising that the iconic Start button would return to the Windows 8 desktop, but never made a guarantee.

In a 25-minute interview at the Wired Business Conference, Julie Larson-Green, who with division CFO Tami Reller co-runs the group, talked about Windows 8 and the upcoming update, code-named "Blue" for now, that will ship later this year.

A public preview of Blue, which leaked copies have identified as Windows 8.1, will be made available on the Windows Store -- Microsoft's app market -- during BUILD, the developers conference set for June 26-28 in San Francisco.

Among the changes expected in Blue, according to reports last month, will be an optional restoration of the Start button and menu on the Windows 8 desktop, and perhaps another option to boot directly to that desktop, skipping the current tile-style Start Screen, which users now see first when they turn on their devices.

Three weeks ago, departing corporate CFO Peter Klein hinted that Blue would include such changes when he told Wall Street analysts, "[Blue] ... further advances the vision of Windows 8 as well as responds to customer feedback."

Reller repeated that Tuesday in a blog post and in interviews with multiple media outlets, including The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, saying, "The Windows Blue update is also an opportunity for us to respond to the customer feedback that we've been closely listening to since the launch of Windows 8 and Windows RT."

Larson-Green went the farthest in nailing down at least one change slated for Blue, but balked at committing the company.

"Some people like the comfort of having [the Start button] showing up on the screen all the time, so that they just know their home place and where to go. So that's something that we're thinking about," said Larson-Green.

But she stopped short of promising that the Start button would return. "We're having discussions, we're having meaningful discussions," was all she acknowledged when asked straight out whether the button would reappear in Blue.

Her hesitancy to guarantee may have been a good idea -- Microsoft has been pummeled in the past for not making deadlines or dropping once-promised features -- but it was also another example of the company's communication strategy, which analysts have called "terrible" because it leaves the huge Windows ecosystem of developers, customers and OEMs clueless about what to expect.

From her comments, however, it sounded like there was less chance of a boot-to-desktop option. "We believe fully in the Start Screen and the model of having these live tiles," Larson-Green said at one point. And at another, she said that Blue would not sport what she called "major changes" from the current Windows 8, which could hint at a rejection of something that would let users bypass what Larson-Green reiterated is a crucial component of Microsoft's design, the Start Screen.

But she also gave mixed messages. "We're principled in the direction we're heading, but we're not stubborn," she asserted, hinting of changes. "We're not going to spite you."

The Start button may seem like a minor element for people to obsess over -- Larson-Green chided users for complaining about past design changes in the OS and said that they needed to "unlearn things" to move forward -- but it has become, no pun intended, a hot-button item, a flash point around which much of the criticism about Windows 8 has coalesced.

Start button complaints kicked off before the first public preview more than a year ago, and have continued unabated since. Critics seized on the omitted button, which had been central to Windows since mid-1995 with the launch of Windows 95, turning its disappearance into a referendum on Microsoft's design as it pushed touch and the new "Modern" user interface (UI) -- initially called "Metro" -- at long-time users.

A cottage industry has sprung up to provide workarounds that restore the Start button and menu, and a boot-to-desktop option, including both free and commercial tools. The latter has been best represented by Stardock's Start8.

Larson-Green's comment about the centrality of the Start Screen hints that, assuming Blue does offer a Start button, it won't do the same for the Start menu.

Blue, which Larson-Green declined to put an official name to, -- she simply called it "the next update to Windows" -- will go final before the end of the year, she and Reller said yesterday.

More information about the update, including pricing, packaging and presumably a firm delivery schedule, will be revealed in the next few weeks, Reller said Tuesday.

This article, Start button's return to Windows 8? Probably, but there's no guarantee, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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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This story, "Start button's return to Windows 8? Probably, but there's no guarantee" was originally published by Computerworld.

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