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Ode to the 'Start button'

Microsoft's iconic "Start button" is gone from the latest version of Windows.

Kai Ryssdal: There was a small but significant shift in the personal computing ecosystem today. Microsoft gave the world its first official look at the new version of the Windows operating system -- Windows 8, technically. And for the first time in 15 years there's a key piece of it missing: that little Start button on the task bar isn't there anymore.

Commentator Jennifer 8. Lee says it's a sign we're maturing -- right alonside our technology.


Jennifer 8. Lee: We first saw it with Windows 95. It was the dawn of the networked age, and the Start button was a beacon for those of us stumbling around the maze of folders and programs on our computers. You could look and there it was -- in bold simple letters in the corner -- "Start." It was a noun, an imperative command, a portal, all in one.

Microsoft had always been knocked as a copycat of other people's ideas, but the Start button was the Seattle giant's own invention. Indeed, patent number 5920316 was granted on July 6, 1999 to Microsoft for "Taskbar with start menu." As the patent explains. "The start menu acts as a centralized place for a user to gain access to programs, documents, system settings, help information and the like." Don't remember where you saved that spreadsheet for work? The Start button was there to help. Sick of your screensaver? The Start button would guide you to the control panel, like an usher showing you to your seat. Thus, for millions, the Start button was computing on training wheels.

Lest we get too nostalgic, we should acknowledge that the Start button has long been on the decline. In Windows Vista, the Start button had been displaced by a shiny Windows logo. But the the sentimental-minded still could delve into the settings and choose the "Windows classic" look to revive it. In Windows 8, the button is gone.

Of course, computing has come a long way since those "classic" days of yore. Back then, a computer was a bulky desktop with a dial-up modem, floppy disk drive and a cathode ray tube monitor. Now our computers fit in our pockets and have 4G connectivity, gigabytes of flash memory, and touch screens. In the age of cloud computing and constant connectivity, the stop and pause functions on our gadgets and media players have become one in the same. When things are always on, we no longer have to start them.


Ryssdal: Jennifer 8. Lee is the author "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles." Send us your thoughts -- write to us.

About the author

Jennifer 8. Lee is a writer, journalist, digital producer, and trustee of Awe­some Food, part of the Awe­some Foun­da­tion. She is the author of "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles."
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My perfect operating system would be DOS with all windows capabilities. the "command box" doesn't count. I got so fed up with windows ignoring dos I wrote a simple app to integrate with my desktop and act as close to DOS as I could make it.

Sadly, it does not have the full power of DOS but when I get fed up with searching bleary eyed, I can just tap the green dot in the upper right corner and type dos commands and programs directly on my desktop.

If you want to see the modern start menu press the Windows key that's been on your keyboard for years. Or, move your mouse to the bottom left hand corner where the Start Button used to be and when the Start Screen preview pops up (which you can think of as a button) click it.

Ms. Lee missed an opportunity . . . I listened intently to her piece but she failed to answer bd_sd's question. If not the start button, then what? What a perfect opportunity to give a quick explanation of the new way of finding the Control Panel.

Back when I was a total computer newbie, I was visiting my brother's house while he and his wife were at dinner, so I decided to tinker with her computer. I found the "power" button but little else was very intuitive and whenever I found myself 'moused' into a corner and needed to "escape," there was nothing... so I hit the power button to start over.

After doing this about five times, her computer reverted to the infamous 'blue screen of death' and she wasn't happy when they returned, asking me why I didn't just turn it off using the "shutdown" button.
When I asked where such a thing even WAS, imagine my surprise to find the "stop" button was actually embedded in the "start" button. Who knew? Who could imagine!?

To me, the 'start' button is the perfect illustration of the total ineptitude of Microsoft and every one of its dysfunctional products: there is nothing "intuitive" or seamlessly functional to a company that, amazingly, came to dominate the operating system market.

If you ever find yourself arguing with someone who believes that the best design is what prevails in the marketplace, this is proof that's not true. Small wonder it's the only 'original' feature of Windows... and a poor one, at that.

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