Build 2013: The Start Button through the years

Christopher Park


When operating systems were in their infancy, no one thought about the need for extra options. In the days of DOS, key commands were the path to opening and executing commands. Large floppy discs were inserted into drives and instructions like “dir” or “run” were standard for running programs.

Then the graphic user interface (GUI) appeared and with it came the ubiquitous Start Button. Microsoft added the Start Button in Windows 95, and continued to include it in every version of the operating system until the release of Windows 8, where the Modern UI focused on Live Tiles rather than the once-standard Start menu.

Build 2013: The Start Button through the years

Windows 8.1 is bringing the Start Button back, but not in a way most users will recognize.

The Start Button celebrates its 18th anniversary this year, so here’s a look at the evolution of one of Windows’ most iconic features.

Windows 95

Introduced on August 24, 1995, the original Start Button contained access to specific categories. Essentially a visual drop-down menu, you could see Programs, Recent Documents, and Settings like Control Panel. It was a simple but direct way to access programs and feature options without having tons of shortcuts on the desktop.

Windows 98

when it was updated in Windows 98, the Start Button added features like the Favorites folder and quick actions.

Windows XP

Windows XP was the first major overhaul of the Windows operating system. Adding a greatly improved user experience while keeping the core of the OS the same, the Start Button became more visual. It also increased functionality by including direct access to default folders like My Pictures and My Music, as well as a direct link to Control Panel.

Unfortunately, the stock Windows XP design with default hills and cloud wallpaper was one of the worst introductions to an operating system ever. Microsoft was smart to allow users to customize the desktop and remove the default OS theme – even on the newest desktops at the time, the visual design required too much computing power.

Windows Vista

Honestly, Windows Vista was a huge misstep for Microsoft. Compared to XP, Vista never felt stable and the visual flair that Microsoft thought necessary only made programs slow down because of the processing power required to display the Aero transparencies.

Microsoft also moved away from text and replaced the “Start” text with the Windows logo. It also updated the options in the Start menu by adding shortcuts to areas that many power users never needed. Like XP, however, you could still customize Vista with a simpler user interface and disable Aero to save CPU power.

Windows 7

Windows 7 was what Vista should have been. The overall UI of Windows 7 focuses on simplicity and visuals in the Taskbar rather than text. It also simplified the Start Menu by removing unnecessary borders.

Search was also improved by the implementation of a Search bar that would scan the computer for relevant files, apps, and settings.

Windows 8

The launch of Windows Phone 7 brought another mobile operating system to the battle between Android and iOS. Introducing Live Tiles, Microsoft sought to unify their operating systems much as Apple had done.

Windows 8 is a cross-platform operating system that can scale from desktop to tablet. Built for touch controls, the mouse and keyboard crowd suffered with some commands that were intuitive only for touchscreens. The problem with Windows 8 is that the Start Button existed behind the Modern UI in the Desktop app. This was a shortcut to a Windows 7-style Start menu, but it wasn’t nearly as visible.

Microsoft wanted users to live fully in the Modern UI, but decided to be careful to allow users access to a Start button – even if it was hidden in a corner.

Windows 8.1

Microsoft formally announced the return of the Start Button at Build 2013. While it doesn’t function like it did in the past, it does offer greater usability. Along with being able to boot directly to the desktop to avoid Modern UI, Microsoft is listening to the community.

Maybe Microsoft tried to be a little too much like Apple by introducing features it considered to be the future. Unfortunately, Microsoft lacks the polish Apple gives to its product line, so the whole idea never quite worked.

Either way, Windows 8.1 marks the return of a second generation Start Button.

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