For most Windows users, it’s hard to imagine that once there was no such thing as the Start Menu. Originally introduced in Windows 95, it’s become a mainstay for Windows users, boosting productivity through its intuitive approach. In fact, Microsoft found out how much users loved it when it tried to remove the feature in the first release of Windows 8. In the past 20 years, it’s gone through various evolutionary steps to get to where it is now.
Here’s a look at just how it came to be.
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1. The dark days before the Start Menu: Before Windows 95 was Windows 3.x, with a graphical interface that would unnerve many modern users. Without a Start Menu, users had to use Program Manager to arrange their programs into some kind of order. A series of icons could be moved around, but there was no taskbar to show what was open at any one time. Users genuinely didn't know where to start, which caused some issues with accessibility.
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2. The start of the Start Menu: It was Windows 95 that changed everything by introducing the Start Menu. A huge deal at the time, people queued up at midnight for a copy, the Rolling Stones's 'Start Me Up' accompanied TV adverts for it, and Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston featured in a slightly horrific instructional video.
The Start Menu was much simpler than Program Manager, being a simple matter of hitting the Start button and navigating various nested menus. Those branching menus meant that nothing was too confusing.
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3. Windows 98 and the integration of the internet: By Windows 98, the internet looked set to be the next big thing (spoiler alert: it was), so Windows 98's Start Menu embraced it. It offered a new 'Favorites' folder, giving you direct access to your favorite websites. Combined with Active Desktop allowing you to add HTML content to your desktop, Microsoft's integration got them into some hot water, but it was a significant step in highlighting the importance of the internet.
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4. Windows XP refines where Windows ME failed: Windows ME is better known as the OS no one really wants to remember. More of a stopgap when it comes to any new features, it's Windows XP that truly improved upon the existing Start Menu. Using two columns, it had one side devoted to installed programs, while the other one dealt with everything else you could think of.
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5. Where PCs became more than just about work: Windows XP came about at a time when more users were using their PCs for things like storing music and pictures. It embraced this by offering specific folders for such purposes to make it even easier to navigate, such as My Pictures and My Music. You could also finally pin favorite programs to the side of the start menu.
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6. Search gets even better with Windows Vista: Windows Vista introduced integrated search to the Start Menu, and things got a whole lot more efficient. By doing so, you could search for files, folders, and programs, all from the same place. At last, it didn't matter if you completely forgot where you stored a file. It was fast too, thanks to the OS's indexing function.
Visually, changes were made so that programs weren't endlessly branching. Instead, you could see one column at a time with a back button helping you go back a level.
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7. If it ain't broke, don't fix it: Windows 7 on the whole was a big improvement on Vista, mostly in terms of stability and reliability. That meant that the Start Menu mostly remained the same. The only key difference here is a more clearly defined Shut Down button. Alongside that were some tweaks to the task bar that plays such an important role for the Start Menu. This time round, the Quick Launch bar was integrated into it, making things run smoother.
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8. Windows 8 and the huge change: What do you do when your user base are comfortable with a specific way of doing things? Change it all, and see what happens. That's what happened with Windows 8. The Start button was no more. Instead, it was replaced by a Start Screen with an aim to be touchscreen-friendly. It had its advantages. It was easier to see various icons (now represented by tiles), and working as a kind of widget meant that you could see information such as how many unread emails you had. Also, uninstalling programs was as simple as right clicking.
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9. Change is tough: The main problem with Windows 8's dramatic departure was just how, well, dramatic it was. People weren't keen. Tying into the look of Windows Phones, it was a layout that didn't work so well with a mouse. The removal of a power button and other elements meant that people soon turned against it. The arrival of Windows 8.1 changed things to offer a kind of bridge between the old menu and the new Start screen, helping assuage dissenters.
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10. Windows 10: Windows 10 re-introduced the Start menu in a revised form. With two columns again, it was one part traditional Start menu, one part tiles akin to the Start screen. With recently used programs and documents easily accessible from the left column, the second column is used as an expanded area for pinning different programs to it.
It offers a lot of flexibility in terms of what you can accomplish, including widget support so you can still see things like weather reports, simply by opening the menu. It's a fine mix of new and old, embracing what worked so well before, while including new options.