For all the pomp and ceremony surrounding the release of Windows 10, one of the most well-received features of the operating system is the return of an old friend—the Start Menu.
The Start Menu has long been a defining element of the Windows interface, and has seen some big changes over the course of the last twenty years. It was intended to shepherd users into the world of computing, and plenty of users who have become quite attached to it. Here’s a brief history of the first two decades of the Windows Start Menu.
The Birth of the Start Menu
The first version of the Start Menu was introduced alongside Windows 95. Up until that point, users navigated through their applications via Program Manager, which sorted programs into groups via an icon-based interface. Program Manager would make an appearance in Windows 95, but the convenience of the Start Menu meant that it was phased out by all, but the most staunch traditionalists.
Program Manager’s biggest failing was its inability to nest a group within a group, something that the Start Menu was capable of doing. In Windows 95, the Start Menu consisted of Programs and Documents—both of which would make full use of this nesting—Settings, a precursor to modern search functionality known as Find, and shortcuts to Help documentation, the Run command, and Shut Down options.
This broad range of functionality would have been difficult to navigate using a folder-based system similar to that of Program Manager. The menu layout allowed users to follow a path to their desired destination from beginning to end, and have all steps be displayed on the screen at once, unlike the alternative that would see them click through from one folder to another discretely.
The Start Menu offered a combination of organization and iconography that made it easy to find the content users were looking for, and did so making the best possible use of the limited screen space offered by the low-resolution monitors of the time. In the mid-1990s, computers were still making the transition to mainstream usage, so providing a logical means of visual navigation was a huge help to novice and expert users alike.
The first version of the Start Menu was iterated upon in later OS releases, including Windows 98 and Windows 2000. Access to Administrative Tools and My Documents was added, in addition to the option of Internet Explorer favorites populating their own section of the menu.
At the time, the inclusion of those bookmarks seemed like a sensible step forward given the growing influence of the Internet. Looking back, however, it’s easy to see this as the first step towards the interconnected Start Menu that we see in Windows 10. Obviously, the technology wasn’t around to offer the same sort of content from the menu back then as is the norm now, but the addition of Internet links certainly demonstrates the first step towards that goal.
Windows XP was packed with big changes for Microsoft’s flagship OS, and a major overhaul for the Start Menu came as part of the package. It was now comprised of two columns; one that combined a full list of the system’s installed programs as well as quick access to several favorites, and a second that offered functionality like links to the Control Panel and Shut Down commands.
While customization was possible via a simple drag and drop onto the Start Menu in Windows 95, it was much more of a focus from Windows XP onwards. The idea of “pinning” files and applications to the Start Menu began here, and it’s since been re-purposed across various aspects of the Windows operating system.
It’s easy to see where this push came from, as the original impetus behind the Start Menu was to offer users a quick and easy way to get straight into the tasks they were looking to complete on a PC. The one-size-fits-all version was a good start, but giving users the option to choose the content they wanted to see had been the end goal.
Another big change was the upgrade of the Find command to a fully fledged Search bar. Initially, this would be placed at the bottom of the left-hand column, but with Windows 7 it expanded to cross both the left and the right. As search engines became our primary way of traversing the Internet as opposed to traditional addresses, it’s easy to see why Microsoft was keen to experiment with such functionality as a way of navigating your own PC.
A Step Backwards
For the majority of its lifespan, the Start Menu was making good forward progress. However, big changes came with Windows 8, and few were entirely pleased with what was in store. The Start Menu was re-imagined as the Start Screen, and its new implementation seemed to diverge away from what made it such a useful means of navigation.
Rather than being integrated into the Desktop, the Start Screen filled the entire display. Worse yet, the space-efficient design of the Start Menu was cast off for Live Tiles—larger quadrangles that added an injection of color and occasionally some pertinent information, as well as links to apps and documents.
Live Tiles have their advantages, but their implementation in Windows 8 left a lot to be desired. More pressingly, the Start Screen removed lots of functionality that users had grown accustomed to seeing in the Start Menu; an easy way to power off their computer, the ability to drag and drop new content and a lack of support for more than one level of nesting.
These were features that had been core to the Start Menu since the beginning, now cast aside. One aspect of the menu that hadn’t been forgotten was its purpose of allowing users to get straight into their work. It was the first thing the user saw when they powered up a machine running Windows 8, but unfortunately it didn’t offer the same advantages that it once did.
A Happy Medium
Unhappy with the changes that had been made, many Windows 8 users decided to find their own means of resurrecting the Start Menu. Microsoft would attempt to placate the masses with changes made in Windows 8.1 and incremental updates, but it was clear that the only thing that would truly re-set the apple cart would be the return of what they knew and had grown to love.
However, simply making a return to the Start Menu of Windows 7 wasn’t going to cut it—in the time since, the smartphone boom had changed UI sensibilities entirely. The inspiration behind the original Start Menu was to deliver a wealth of utility in a small package, but mobile interfaces had introduced a host of new ideas about the best practices to make that a reality.
The modernity of the Metro interface and the function of the Start Menu would come together in the Start Menu that’s being offered as part of Windows 10. Since Microsoft’s last version of their OS looks set to be updated in a more iterative manner, who knows how much it will change over the years to come.
For the time being, it seems to combine some of the best elements from its twenty-year history without losing sight of the reason it was designed in the first place. The past two decades have been filled with change across the tech landscape, and the Start Menu of 2015 carries evidence of much of that upheaval.
How do you like it?