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Interview: Stardock CEO Brad Wardell talks about Start8

The release last week of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview has been an interesting one for Microsoft. Users are trying to figure out the Metro interface as well as the desktop UI. One thing that users have missed is the familiar Start menu in the desktop environment. While there are third party hacks that can create an approximation of the Start menu, developer Stardock decided to create a free Windows 8 app, Start8, that puts in a Start menu for the Windows 8 desktop screen.

We got a chance to ask Stardock CEO Brad Wardell some questions about Start8, how he feels about Windows 8 in general, whether or not Stardock will make more Windows 8 apps and products, and more.

First, you have been vocal on your own personal blog site that while you think Windows 8 is great, the Metro interface is not. What is it specifically about the Metro UI that you don't care for?

It's a lot of different things. There are two big things in particular: First, Windows 8 is trying to jam two completely different user experiences into the same OS and make the user jump between them arbitrarily. Second, the Metro UI is not well suited to enabling users to organize their "stuff". PC users tend to have a lot of programs installed and the Metro UI tends to make it very hard to differentiate what is and isn't important. You can pin things to always be available visible but that's about it. There is no "folder" concept in Metro to organize your things.

Do you think Steven Sinofsky and the Microsoft team will be making any major changes to the Metro interface before the final commercial version of Windows 8 is released?

I am confident they are. Mr. Sinofsky is one of the best software engineers in history. What concerns me is how things even got to where they are in the Consumer Preview. The user experience is objectively terrible. I saw a prominent journalist say that it "only" takes 4 steps to shut down the machine, what was the big deal? The big deal is that a lot of basic things are now multiple steps. I use a PC to get work done, not to battle with the OS interface.

Microsoft has chosen to not offer the traditional Start menu for the desktop UI of Windows 8. Is this a bad idea or should users simply try a new way of looking at accessing their Windows 8 apps?

I'm not married to the Start menu. If someone comes up with a new, better way to get to their stuff, then I'm all for it. What's a bad idea is making getting to your stuff a disjointed experience that involves extra steps and is inconsistent.

How hard was it to develop Start8?

It took us about a day to make the prototype. It's really just a test app to see if we could, if we had to, bring Metro onto the desktop if necessary. I think most Windows 8 testers think there's a lot to like about Metro, they just don't like being jerked out of the desktop. If we can let users stay in one environment with one consistent usage paradigm then the migration to Windows 8 would go a lot smoother. Ideally, Microsoft will do this. Users shouldn't have to install third party stuff to make Windows work.

So far what has been the response to Start8 since it launched in terms of both downloads and comments from users?

It's pretty polarized. You have the people who, I think, sincerely believe that people just need to "get used" to Metro and think something like Start8 is just a crutch for people not willing to adapt. And then you have the people, people like me, who don't have a problem with Metro but just want to use their PC to get work done and want to reduce the hoops one has to jump through to get that work done.

Does Stardock plan to put in any improvements and new features to Windows 8?

It depends on the final version. My fear is that if Microsoft doesn't address the problems we have now that people will stay on Windows 7. I've seen Microsoft advocates on forums say that people who don't have touch or have large displays or multiple monitors should just stay on 7. That's terrible advice. There's a lot of really good technology in Windows 8 that will bring the computing experience forward. It would be tragic to get held back simply because the shell it's packaged in is problematic.

Will Stardock offer up any other free Windows 8 apps during its pre-release period?

Yea, we already have a bunch of stuff we're playing around with such as having Metro apps in a window on the desktop, Tile "Groups" in Metro, lots of customization stuff. But we'll hold off until we see if Microsoft is going to fix these things themselves.

Stardock has certainly made most of its money by selling Windows applications such as Object Desktop. When the final version of Windows 8 is released will Stardock launch its own paid Windows apps and if so what can you tell us about them?

The path we've taken in the past few years has been to release a lot of our software for free that addresses what most users want and then offer a version that had additional features. That's how programs like Fences and Tiles work which are very popular. So I think you'll see more of that in the future.

Will Stardock be using the Windows Store to sell these apps or will it come up with its own way of selling the apps to customers?

It depends on the requirements Microsoft puts in place. Our games probably will be. But most of our non-game software works by extending the Windows experience which I'm not sure what Microsoft's policy will be.

Will the company release any apps that will be made strictly for the Metro touch interface?

Almost certainly. Metro on the tablet is a a very good experience. It's compelling. WinRT is compelling. And the use of HTML 5 makes it a lot easier for us to justify developing things for it.

Will Stardock release any apps for Windows 8 running on ARM-based hardware?

Same as above.

Finally, this is perhaps the single biggest change in Windows from Microsoft since at least Windows 95, if not ever. Do you ultimately think this will be a successful launch for Microsoft?

It depends on what they do with the feedback on the Preview. If they don't address the fundamental usability issues they've introduced to people who expect to use Windows as a PC desktop OS, then I think they're in for some serious trouble.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

Whatever your opinion on Windows 8 is, you can check out a lengthy discussion for and against here, or check out other topics on the Windows 8 Consumer Preview here.

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