The Windows Start menu saga, from 1993 to today
One of Windows 10’s biggest “new” features has a pedigree that spans two decades.
One of the first Windows 10 features we learned about was the return of the Start menu, which is sort of funny, since the concept of the Start menu is over two decades old. Microsoft tried to replace it with the Start screen in Windows 8, and you only have to look at the adoption numbers to see how most consumers and businesses felt about it.
The Start menu has changed a lot over the years, but there are a handful of common elements that have made it all the way from Windows 95 to Windows 10. We fired up some virtual machines and traveled back in time to before there was a Start menu to track its evolution from the mid ’90s to now.
What you’re looking at here is build 58s of “Chicago,” one of the earliest extant betas of what would go on to become Windows 95. Things still look awfully Windows 3.1-ish in many parts of this build, but you can see the seeds that would later grow into the familiar Start Menu, Taskbar, and My Computer features, among a few other things.
The most notable thing about this proto-Start menu is that it’s actually three buttons. The Windows logo button handles window and application management, the eyeball-looking menu is an app launcher, and the question mark menu handles Help and file searches. The unified Start menu Microsoft eventually settled on handled all of these things in a much less ambiguous way.
This is how most people were introduced to the Start menu, and the button figured prominently in Microsoft’s advertising for the product. Here, let Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry tell you about it!
The mid-to-late ’90s was when Microsoft really made good on Bill Gates’ “computer on every desk in every home” vision, and Windows 95 played a big part. For many, it served as an introduction to recognizably modern windowed operating systems, and for those people the Start menu serves as a comfortable anchor. It literally says “start” on it.
This first public version of the Start menu is pretty spare by modern standards: it serves as the OS’ primary app launcher, and it also includes links to recently opened files, system settings, and file searches. Installed apps are all dumped into the “Programs” section, which was made up of branching menus that could branch out pretty much forever. And while you could drag icons and shortcuts to the Start button to “pin” them to the top of the Start menu, the feature is so non-obvious that you could be forgiven for not knowing about it.
Windows 95 went through a bunch of updates between mid-1995 and late 1997, some of which added deceptively large features (between the initial release and the final one, support for AGP graphics cards, the FAT32 filesystem, and USB support were added among many other things). By the final version (“OEM Service Release 2.5”), a Suspend button was added to the top level of the Start menu but it otherwise stayed the same.
Windows NT 4.0
Windows NT was the more stable, business-oriented version of Windows, and version 4.0 (released in 1996) brought in Windows 95’s user interface along with its other changes. The Windows NT kernel later subsumed the Windows 9x kernel for both consumer and professional versions of Windows, but the lack of features like DirectX and higher system requirements made NT less attractive for consumer PCs.
The Start menu in NT is largely the same as it is in 95, but by default the “Programs” menu is split up into apps installed for all users and apps installed for the current user. Apps can still make this distinction now, but the bifurcated Start menu disappeared in later versions.
Windows 95 got a lot of people on the Internet, but the Web was baked into Windows 98 right from the get-go. This deep integration would get Microsoft into just a little bit of trouble with regulators, but that’s another story.
When Internet Explorer 4 was released, there was an optional component available for Windows 95 called the Windows Desktop Update. It and IE4 introduced, among other things, Internet Explorer integration with the Windows Explorer file manager, Active Desktop, the Start menu-adjacent Quick Launch bar, an updated version of the Outlook Express mail client, and some other stuff.
All of this, available but optional in Windows 95, is included by default in a vanilla Windows 98 installation. A new “Favorites” folder on the Start menu gave direct access to websites. A top-level “Log Off” button emphasized multi-user support, though you couldn’t log out without closing all of your windows and apps in consumer Windows until Windows XP introduced Fast User Switching. And a top-level Windows Update button pinned to the Start menu emphasized the fact that you could, um, update Windows—readily available Internet access made closing up security holes much more important.
Also new to the default Windows install in this release was the ability to right-click stuff in the Start menu and the ability to drag app icons around within the Start menu. Doing that before required going into the settings.
This 1999 paid upgrade to Windows 98 is more-or-less the peak of the Windows 9x product line; Windows ME replaced it a year later but has a well-deserved reputation for bugginess and instability.
The Second Edition doesn’t change much about the Start menu, but it does add a handy “Sort by Name” shortcut in the right-click menu that you can use to get your unwieldy Programs menus in order.
Windows 2000 was released early that year, and, while its Start menu and general UI looks pretty much exactly like ME’s, the two were worlds apart under the hood.
Windows 2000 was also Windows NT 5.0, and unlike 4.0 it supported DirectX, most of the Windows Desktop Update niceties, and full support for ACPI and the same driver model used by Windows 98. The result is something that’s much more usable as a consumer operating system, and indeed Windows 2000 was originally planned as a replacement for both Windows 98 and Windows NT 4.0. That unification didn’t actually happen until Windows XP came out the following year.
Windows ME, on the other hand, was a stopgap extension of the Windows 9x line. It introduced a few new features and still had lower system requirements than Windows 2000, but it didn’t have the Windows NT stability that XP would bring.
The Start menu in 2000 is functionally identical to the version in Windows ME, though there’s no Log Off link at the top menu by default.