If Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) won't fix what's wrong with Windows, maybe the system builders will.
The world's largest software specialist heard users complaining about the user interface of its Windows 8 desktop operating system. Among other things, Redmond got us used to the classic Start Menu in Windows 95, but removed it entirely in 17 years later in Windows 8. No soft step down from one interface to the other, and there's nothing optional about the new Metro model's start screen.
Mr. Softy responded to the controversy by making the new interface work slightly more like the old one, starting with this fall's Windows 8.1 update. The old Start Button is back as yet another way to invoke the not-at-all-familiar Start Screen.
But if you really want the old Start Menu back, you're still stuck installing third-party solutions. Frankly, I'd guess that the longtime Windows users who want the Start Menu back the most would also be the ones least likely to find a hacker-like solution.
Enter the Chinese dragon.
China-based systems builder Lenovo acquired IBM's consumer systems division way back in 2005. Big Blue helped Microsoft start the personal computing revolution but was ready to refocus on higher-margin enterprise solutions. Lenovo was happy to take IBM's low-margin but high-volume business and use it as a springboard into the West. The company has recently become the largest PC seller in the world. It's a market force to be reckoned with.
And now Lenovo steps in to help Microsoft do the right thing.
Lenovo will ship PC systems with a pre-installed reincarnation of the old Start Menu, starting in the next few weeks and eventually rolling out to every Lenovo market worldwide. The menu comes from software distribution upstart SweetLabs, which makes a turnkey Start Menu replacement called Pokki.
This package comes with some serious corporate backing, though. When Microsoft's early test versions of the original Windows 8 system emerged and made it clear that the Start Menu would go AWOL, the investment arms of Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) poured millions of dollars into SweetLabs to support Pokki's development.
Intel and Google also care about desktops and laptops sticking around. Chips for such systems are a critical source of revenue for Intel while its smartphone and tablet products are just getting started. Google doesn't really care what system you're using to click on its ads, but the company generally loves it when consumers get along with their Internet gateways -- including desktops.
These industry titans are perfectly able to finance and co-develop solutions for Microsoft's missteps, but they need help to get the final result onto the end-user market. I can't think of a better option than Lenovo, which has become the largest system vendor anywhere and should be able to set the tone for the entire PC market.
I wouldn't be surprised to see other PC builders following suit in short order. If Microsoft won't build essential features into its operating system, the free market finds a way to work around the problem.