We know that at some point in the future, Microsoft will bring the Start menu back to Windows. What we don't know is when, but some leaked screenshots of a future version of Windows might offer a clue.
Screenshots allegedly showing the new Start menu have leaked on an internet forum. The menu looks similar, but not identical, to what Microsoft showed publicly at its Build developer conference in April.
The size and format of the menu is the same, but the tiles themselves are different, suggesting the image was generated by an early build of the new Windows.
Another image shows a Windows Modern (or Metro) settings menu running within a window on the desktop. While Microsoft said the update would allow Modern apps to run within individual windows, the settings image suggests users will have the option to "minimise" the whole Modern experience. That should please many users who have resisted upgrading to Windows 8 or 8.1 because of a distaste for the Modern interface.
Now the question is: Are these screenshots from an update to Windows 8.1, or the next major version, Windows 9? Judging from the discussion thread around where the images came from and subsequent commentary, the consensus is the images are from Windows 9, also said to be a called "Threshold," which probably won't arrive until early 2015 at the earliest.
Although the watermark on the images reads "Windows 8.1 Pro," it's fairly common for early builds of a new major update to include marks of the previous version. The forum where the screenshot appeared says it's from Build 6.4.9788 of Windows 9.
With the new Start menu and the Modern interface taking a backseat to the Desktop environment, it appears that Windows 9 is intended to address the criticisms of Windows 8, which was strongly focused on the Start screen, "live" tiles and full-screen apps. While the touch nature of Windows 8 and 8.1 thrust Microsoft into the tablet market, many traditional users balked at the changes, and subsequent updates have slowly re-emphasised the Desktop for mouse-and keyboard machines (like laptops).
While these screenshots are of course unofficial, Windows 9 looks set to complete that process. Certainly, Modern design is too baked into Windows now to go away completely, but Threshold will allow users who hate it (rightly or wrongly) to upgrade and keep their contact with the Modern environment to an absolute minimum.
That's probably not the future Microsoft envisioned when it launched Windows 8, but it's probably the best shot it has at making the next version of Windows a success.
Microsoft representatives didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
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