In geek circles, we've been playing with Windows 8 test versions for so long that debates over the used-to-be-called-Metro updated Windows 8 interface feel like old news. It's easy to forget that when Windows 8 actually drops on October 26, that change is going to become much more obvious to the vast majority of computer users, and there's going to be a lot of complaining.
I was reminded of this last night when chatting with Waleed Aly on Radio National Drive about Windows 8. It was a good discussion (you can catch it online), but I was surprised that as soon as I mentioned the disappearance of the Start button — a relatively minor alteration compared to the overall interface switch — this became the focus of conversation.
But really, why wouldn't it? I've been covering technology long enough to remember when the introduction of the Start button was a big deal, but that 17 years ago. For many computer users, Windows and the Start button are inseparable; that's how you do things. Taking that away is inevitably going to cause a big reaction, and that reaction hasn't yet spread from the geeky to the masses.
A popular school of thought suggests that Windows 8 is due to be the "bad version", working on the theory that alternating releases of Windows are either widely accepted or broadly rejected (by this thinking, 7 was good, Vista was bad, XP was good, 98 was bad, 95 was good . . .) I'm not particularly convinced by this line of reasoning, mostly because there's a big difference between what was wrong with Vista — sloppy performance and terrible driver support — and what's perceived to be wrong with Windows 8 (a very different interface).
While I still think Windows 8 is unquestionably tablet-centric and that most existing users will be in Desktop mode all the time, I'm much more relaxed about that interface switch than I was when it was first announced.
In part, that's what always happens; you rally against a change before getting used to it. In part it's because I've come to accept that there are definite benefits to the new interface. But mostly, it's because once Classic Shell updated to provide a Start menu alternative, I knew I could have the best of both worlds; a keyboard driven Start-button interface for my classic Desktop apps, and the Metro interface for newer stuff or when I was on a tablet.
For people who mostly use a mouse and are happy pinning items to the Start bar, Classic Shell would be overkill. The search option within Windows 8 works well; hit the Windows key and start typing, and you'll find things very quickly, just as you do now. There will be new options to learn (such as the revised keyboard shortcuts), but that happens with any new platform.
So when people say to me "Does it matter that there isn't a Start button?", I'll be saying "Not spectacularly". But I don't expect the change to go unremarked. The sound and the fury always happens.