Interview: We chat with the creator of Classic Shell

One of the many available Start menu skins.

Earlier this month, we reported that Classic Shell, the free Start Menu add-on for both Windows 7 and 8 has seen a massive surge of downloads since the launch of Windows 8 in October. Originally released in 2009, the program has now been downloaded over 6.3 million times since then, and 4.5 million of those downloads have come after the commercial release of Windows 8.

We got Classic Shell's main developer Ivo Beltchev to answer a few of our questions about Classic Shell and his reaction to its massive popularity in the last several months.

How did the idea for Classic Shell come about?

The idea for Classic Shell was born when I had to switch from Vista to Windows 7 and I discovered that the classic menu was removed. The 2 main features of the classic menu were gone – the easy keyboard navigation and the discoverability of a cascading menu.

There were a few third-party replacements, but at the time they weren’t very good. So I decided to roll up my sleeves and take a stab at it. How hard can it be? Well, 3 years later I’m still working on it :) It grew from a simple tool for personal use to a pretty popular piece of software with a life of its own. Dozens of people are contributing to the project with ideas, testing, localization, creating new skins and helping in the forums. My buddy Gaurav Kale has been very helpful with testing and proposing new features.

How hard was it to convert Classic Shell to Windows 8?

The main challenge of course was that I needed to implement a new start button. There are a lot of details to get right – the look and feel, the mouse behavior, compatibility with the different taskbar settings. The rest was fairly easy. For the most part Windows 8 is still quite compatible with Windows 7 and most of the Classic Shell code worked with no modification. An unfortunate exception is the File Explorer. Because of the extensive changes done to it, not all Classic Shell features could be ported to Windows 8.

Were you surprised that the app got so many more downloads after Windows 8 was released?

Yes, the number of downloads exploded 5 times after the release of Windows 8. It was quite unexpected.

Do you know about how many Classic Shell downloads were for Windows 8 PCs?

It is hard to tell. Currently the software has been downloaded more than 6 million times, and most likely at least 80% are for Windows 8. Of course one person may download multiple versions, and one download may be used by multiple people. So it is impossible to tell the number of unique users.

Finally what future plans do you have for Classic Shell?

At this time I don’t want to announce any upcoming new features. There are big things in the works, and the plan is to release a public beta in the following couple of months.

We would like to thank Ivo for answering our questions.

Image via EightForums.com

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"when I had to switch from Vista to Windows 7 and I discovered that the classic menu was removed. The 2 main features of the classic menu were gone - the easy keyboard navigation and the discoverability of a cascading menu."

QFMFT.

The awful UI changes are why I still use Vista instead of 7: http://imgur.com/a/DXZ0G

Still have yet to find a program that can revert them. A simple UI skin doesn't do much for re-designing how windows function.

I dunno, I placed my control panel button as my first icon and have never looked back. Dunno what the fuss of a start menu is.

I actually hated the cascaded start menu when you opened up All Programs. Glad to see that gone in Vista.
The double-pane start menu that debuted in Windows XP is great, with user folders and other stuff on the right, and most frequently used programs on the left. Way better than the classic start menu.

FalseAgent said,
I actually hated the cascaded start menu when you opened up All Programs. Glad to see that gone in Vista.

I hated it as well, of course All Programs being restricted to that tiny ass menu was just as bad, if not more.

This man understands what desktop users and content creators (rather than consumers) NEED.
In particular:
- A way of starting programs that doesn't suddenly hog the whole screen.
- A start button that can be seen - discoverability.
- A start button that presents a target to click on (finding the exact pixel when running Win8 in a window e.g. in a virtual machine or remotely is a PITA).
- Folders to group related items together, rather than dumping them all over the start screen.
MS should hire this person and clear out its useless UI designers who understand none of the above.

Agree except for th MS to hire him. That means stoping Classic Shell.
Remember nLite and vLite ? They stop developing when their creator was hire by MS.

gb8080 said,
This man understands what desktop users and content creators (rather than consumers) NEED.
In particular:
- A way of starting programs that doesn't suddenly hog the whole screen.
- A start button that can be seen - discoverability.
- A start button that presents a target to click on (finding the exact pixel when running Win8 in a window e.g. in a virtual machine or remotely is a PITA).
- Folders to group related items together, rather than dumping them all over the start screen.
MS should hire this person and clear out its useless UI designers who understand none of the above.

MS should hire him? What for? To cling to legacy bits not suited for a modern OS?

Dot Matrix said,

MS should hire him? What for? To cling to legacy bits not suited for a modern OS?

Just who are you to say what is suited for a modern OS? I didn't realize you spoke for everyone.

Dot Matrix said,

MS should hire him? What for? To cling to legacy bits not suited for a modern OS?

If you are going to make dumb remarks like that then please explain the following:

- Why is hogging the whole screen "suited for a modern OS"?
- Why is the need to play hunt-the-pixel "suited for a modern OS"?
- Why are undiscoverable features "suited for a modern OS"?
- Why is dumping stuff all over a start screen, with no tidy subfolders (compare iPhone OS which has folders) "suited for a modern OS"?

You seek to use "legacy" pejoratively. The word you lack is "usability".

I would amend my last comment "MS should hire this person and clear out its useless UI designers - and people like DotMatrix - who quite clearly STILL understand none of the above."

Edited by gb8080, May 20 2013, 1:02pm :

TRC said,

Just who are you to say what is suited for a modern OS? I didn't realize you spoke for everyone.

The legacy Start Menu was removed because it wasn't needed anymore. Same story with the XP Start Menu. There's bigger and better things to focus on now, that are rendering these bits obsolete. Why bog down the OS by keeping them in?

Dot Matrix said,

MS should hire him? What for? To cling to legacy bits not suited for a modern OS?

O god here we go

Nothing legacy about a menu Linux of all flavors has a menu , android has menus you personally just don't like the menu that's ok but saying it does not belong is plain rubbish

Dot Matrix said,

The legacy Start Menu was removed because it wasn't needed anymore. Same story with the XP Start Menu. There's bigger and better things to focus on now, that are rendering these bits obsolete. Why bog down the OS by keeping them in?

Because not everyone shares your opinion that they are obsolete or that the new Start Screen is better. Keeping them in as an optional feature would in no way bog down the OS; how would it?

TRC said,

Because not everyone shares your opinion that they are obsolete or that the new Start Screen is better. Keeping them in as an optional feature would in no way bog down the OS; how would it?

When is the last time Microsoft added features to the Start Menu? It hasn't been touched since XP's development, and before that Windows 95. Even in Windows 7, it's a half realized nightmare that is never going to add any future value to the OS.

I'm not sure how it's a half-realized nightmare, I think it works very well. Making a huge panel that takes up an entire monitor is not an improvement. I just want a simple start menu that doesn't cover up my screen, not a giant billboard with colored tiles that looks like it's made for a child's computer.

Either way there's no excuse for not having it as an option. I don't have a touch screen device nor a tiny screen so Metro and it's full screen mobile phone apps is not in any way suited to my needs.

Edited by Bonfire, May 20 2013, 2:26pm :

TRC said,
I'm not sure how it's a half-realized nightmare, I think it works very well. Making a huge panel that takes up an entire monitor is not an improvement. I just want a simple start menu that doesn't cover up my screen, not a giant billboard with colored tiles that looks like it's made for a child's computer.

You're putting the start menu on quite the pedestal. In my opinion, it's a swiss army knife of functionality, an overloaded hodgepodge of functions that needed a major revision.

You say that the start screen taking up an entire monitor is not an improvement. I say the start menu is too small and does not scale to accommodate my high resolution display. No matter what it's the same size, and doesn't display the amount of items I want it to.

You say the start menu is neatly organized. I say organization in the start menu is shallow and primitive, boiling down to a simple alphabetical list of folders with the same exact icon for each. Finding an item is an exercise in reading each folder name in order, which are often named by the company who made the app. If you don't know the name of the company that made your app, you have to open each folder.

You say the start screen is a giant billboard for a child. I say the start screen goes beyond folders, and provides organization based on shape, size, color, proximity, and large colorful icons, which takes advantage of a higher dimension in human reasoning. It is much easier to find a specific item in this layout at a glance than reading and scrolling through a long 1D list of identical folder icons, reading each name. What's more these large icons provide enough room to add helpful information, which saves times by allowing me to see which apps I have to open before I even open them.

Here are other ways in which the start menu fails me:

1) It's not as customizable. For instance, how do I add a folder to the start menu? I have to go into properties and customize and then I have a fixed list of folders I can add. I can go to "ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\StartMenu\Programs" and customize the folders... sort of. No other way to arrange them other than alphabetically. And it's not exactly the most user friendly mechanism.

2) The most recently used apps list is arbitrary and confusing. The heuristics it uses are completely bonkers. It lists things I've never used right next to software I use all the time. Some of my most commonly used apps aren't on there. It makes no sense.

3) "Shut down", an uncommon function, is sandwiched between two very common functions: search and sleep. In fact, that's another problem I have. Shut down is a large button, and it's directly next to a tiny button which opens a menu for more commonly used functions like sleep/lock/switch user.

Either way there's no excuse for not having it as an option. I don't have a touch screen device nor a tiny screen so Metro and it's full screen mobile phone apps is not in any way suited to my needs.

What do you mean there's no option? This article is about software which gives you the option you want. Customize your machine how you like and stop whining.

ModernMech said,

What do you mean there's no option? This article is about software which gives you the option you want. Customize your machine how you like and stop whining.

Obviously I meant an official option from Microsoft, and I'm simply expressing my opinion and contributing to the discussion. Why is it whining when it's not an opinion you agree with, or is no one allowed to not like something that Microsoft does on this site?

TRC said,

Obviously I meant an official option from Microsoft, and I'm simply expressing my opinion and contributing to the discussion. Why is it whining when it's not an opinion you agree with, or is no one allowed to not like something that Microsoft does on this site?

There's no option because it's not part of the Windows 8 UX.

Dot Matrix said,

There's no option because it's not part of the Windows 8 UX.

Interesting reasoning, it's not there because it's not there.

It's whining when there's an option, or in this case over a dozen options, that provide exactly what you are looking for, and yet you refuse to exercise those options. I have a friend who like the old start menu. He installed a start menu replacement and is using Windows 8 happily. He's not going on message boards complaining he has no options for an old start menu because he's using the old start menu.

What does it matter if it comes from Microsoft or not? I have hundreds of programs on my computer that didn't come from Microsoft. Maybe you should use iOS so you can be assured all your software comes with a "First party approved" stamp.

Windows Nashville said,

For making Windows 8 usable for actual work.

The Start Screen is quite usable for actual work. Whatever, "actual work" means.

Windows Nashville said,

For making Windows 8 usable for actual work.

I love comments like these. I program and control million dollar unmanned aerial vehicles on my Windows 8 machine. I suppose that's not real work though.

Dot Matrix said,

The Start Screen is quite usable for actual work. Whatever, "actual work" means.

Actual work as opposed to the Facebook/Instagram "social" culture that Windows 8 was designed to reach (and has failed miserably to do so in any case).

jjkusaf said,

oh yea, I'm sure the start menu "bogs" down the OS. /s

The Metro "service" constantly running in the background even if you spend all your time in the desktop environment bogs down the OS far, far more dramatically than a third party start menu application.

Windows Nashville said,

The Metro "service" constantly running in the background even if you spend all your time in the desktop environment bogs down the OS far, far more dramatically than a third party start menu application.

Yeah, and I'm sure you have some actual figures for how metro "bogs down" the OS "dramatically". Talk about hyperbole. There is no discernible performance difference between Windows 7 and Windows 8 in most cases. Benchmarks show either a negligible difference between 7 and 8, or in some cases 8 outperforming 7 [1].

"From a performance standpoint Windows 8 appears to offer a solid foundation from the get-go. Although there are only a few select areas where it is faster than Windows 7, we are pleased that it's able to match it everywhere else.

Looking beyond benchmarks, Windows 8 appears more polished than Windows 7, even if you plan to live on the desktop and aren't too fond of the Start screen, general usage is smoother and appears to be faster on Windows 8."

Seriously, put up or shut up.

[1] http://www.techspot.com/review/561-windows8-vs-windows7/

Windows Nashville said,

Actual work as opposed to the Facebook/Instagram "social" culture that Windows 8 was designed to reach (and has failed miserably to do so in any case).

So, in that case, like the actual work I'm doing right now on my Surface!

Windows Nashville said,

The Metro "service" constantly running in the background even if you spend all your time in the desktop environment bogs down the OS far, far more dramatically than a third party start menu application.

What? Metro apps use *no* memory when out of focus, and the Start Screen adds nothing as well. Where are you getting this BS from?

ModernMech said,
You say that the start screen taking up an entire monitor is not an improvement. I say the start menu is too small and does not scale to accommodate my high resolution display. No matter what it's the same size, and doesn't display the amount of items I want it to.

You say the start menu is neatly organized. I say organization in the start menu is shallow and primitive, boiling down to a simple alphabetical list of folders with the same exact icon for each. Finding an item is an exercise in reading each folder name in order, which are often named by the company who made the app. If you don't know the name of the company that made your app, you have to open each folder.

Perhaps this holds true for the NT 6 start menu, which was a step backwards, but isn't true for the "classic" one from Windows 4 and 5.0.

The original start menu could expand across the entire screen if it held enough items. But was small and compact if the user chose to keep only a minimum of links in it.

The user was free to reorganize the links into logical categories, such as "work", "multimedia" or "games". Software installers could not assume these folder names, because what was multimedia on one computer could be "video" on another, and were right to choose the company name as the directory. If an installer put too many icons in the start menu, the blame is on it, not on the OS.

The list did not have to be alphabetical. Items could appear in any order, which was recorded in the registry. Although, I would have preferred an alphabetical list without having to take an extra step to resort it, and bloating the registry with orphaned entries over time.

1) It's not as customizable. For instance, how do I add a folder to the start menu? I have to go into properties and customize and then I have a fixed list of folders I can add.
Right-click on the Classic start button, choose Open, and create any folders you like. Once you have the right directories, you can drag items around the start menu without looking at a directory structure.

2) The most recently used apps list is arbitrary and confusing. The heuristics it uses are completely bonkers.
No such recent list in the classic menu.