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Windows Explorer Through the Years (gekk.info)
186 points by kleff 8 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 182 comments

Sorry for offtopic, but I'd like to share a tip I can't imagine living without. You can type cmd in explorer address bar and it'll open cmd in that directory (probably works with any other program in your %PATH%). Also you can type `explorer .` in cmd to open explorer in the current directory.

Another tip: Shift-Right-Click a file in Explorer and "Copy as path" will appear in the context menu.

Puts the full file path in your clipboard.

Da fck.

I recently learned you can add this feature to the right click context menu via adding a registry entry.

If I’d’a known shift-right click I wouldn’t make bothered.

Shift right click has always been the way to get the "advanced" context menu. Well, at least back to Windows 95. Fun fact: since the shortcut for the context menu is Shift+F10, you'll always get the extended menu since you'll always have shift pressed when the menu appears.

I’m one of the ten thousand today:


Did not know that! I've always used the "menu key" for keyboard access to the context menu instead.

Looks like shift+menu key does the same thing, too

I only learned last year (when I was still on Windows 7) that you can right-click drag (for example a file on to an email in outlook) and it will throw a pop-up where you can select "Create hyperlink here".

It dropped my jaw...after decades using Windows I had never known right click and drag was even a thing!

Control+drag = copy; Shift+drag = move; Control+Shift+drag = link.

Yes, but right-click drag means clear visual confirmation of the action, the physical movements are the same for all types of operation, and you can make up your mind what to do after you've indicated where. I only use shift or control if I accidentally left-click drag.

The Right-Click Drag context menu is also an Explorer Shell Extension Point (going way back) and some apps can add additional behaviors to it beyond Cut/Copy. 7-Zip for instance includes a lot of options in a sub-menu. For instance, Right-Click Drag a set of .zip files in a Downloads folder to a more permanent home folder and you can select 7-Zip > Extract to *\ and 7-Zip will expand all of the .zip files into folders based on the names of the .zip files.

From memory, this was added in Windows Vista. On XP and 2000, you needed the registry entry. Another popular similar entry was "Command Prompt here".

Oh yeah! Microsoft released PowerToys back in the day that had clever things like this.

The new PowerToys [1] are interesting too, though somewhat different in scope from the old ones.

[1] https://github.com/microsoft/PowerToys

equivalent on Mac: Alt + Right Click.

Windows requires the modifier key held down when clicking, but macOS adjusts the open menu according with currently held down modifiers.

True, and definitely something Windows should have.

If you're talking about Mac, you mean "Option", not "Alt".

OMG!!! where have you been my whole life. you just saved me tons of stress when getting a file path in explorer

Also in the Shift-Right-Click is open command prompt in directory. Nice symmetry there.

I've always used "start ." in cmd to open explorer. "start" is kind of useful to know since it triggers the default action for a file, e.g. "start foo.txt" opens it in Notepad or whatever your default text editor is.

"start "."" however opens another cmd window. Consistency is not a strong point.

start uses the first quoted argument as the window title and with your example the actual argument is missing, hence you get a new console window.

Aaargh. I always forget that while UNIX strips one layer of quotes from arguments, DOS and its inheritors have no parsing and just pass the whole thing through. So you can have semantically meaningful quotes.

Speaking of weird Windows/Unix quoting complexities, the following makes a WSL equivalent of cmd's start:

  alias start="cmd.exe /c start '' ${@//&/^&}"
I don't remember where I found the details, but they're not of my invention. This may have some strange edge case failures, but works pretty well in my experience, including with spaces in filenames, but only for Windows folders, not WSL-specific ones (cmd.exe barfs, but maybe it would be possible with PowerShell).

Windows Explorer has been so slow that I actively avoid using it and use the command prompt instead. Even on an SSD, opening a folder sometimes takes several seconds while Explorer scans that folder with a progress bar on the address bar (and does I-don’t-know-what in the background). I see this happening for downloads and many other folders.

I use Keypirinha, Everything, and other tools to get work done.

In many of those cases it's shell extensions installed by other apps that make Explorer slow. I forgot how you can check that, but you can.

This! Especially f'in dropbox.. swear to god everytime you try to click on a file it does some type of request to try to "help" you.

Which is fine, but it gets slow as hell. I have a brand new very fast machine and all the sudden explorer was getting so terrible. I downloaded something to disable the dropbox shell extensions and back to very nice performance.

Still it's sign of bad design IMO. Proper design would show menu immediately with some indication that some items are still loading, while running shell extension callbacks in background. But probably that's too fundamental to change at this moment. I remember entire Windows shell freezing because of similar things back in Windows XP. At least now different shell parts don't freeze all at once.

Yeah, and but there are SO many plugin systems designed decades after Explorer that do the same thing. Hindsight is 20/20.

“autoruns” from sysinternals

ShellExView from Nirsoft

You can also shift right click the background of an explorer window to open a terminal session (powershell or cmd depending on the release I think). If you need a administrator prompt you can do that from explorer's file menu in Windows 10.

Since ribbon UI you can always add ribbon items to the quick access toolbar (right click -> add to quick access) which can be accessed by the alt + (item slot number)

I always used to add powershell and powershell (admin) from the File menu to the quick access toolbar which allows me to quickly open the powershell in the current folder via keybind (Normal ps: alt + 3, Admin ps: alt + 4)

I wish they would add new windows terminal and all user defined profiles to the file menu.

You can also type "wt" and have Windows Terminal open your default shell (presuming Windows Terminal is installed). This makes it really convenient to access WSL wherever you need it.

Also if you aren't on hte mouse, CTRL+L in the folder jumps the cursor to the address bar.

Thank god they finally copied this behavior from web browsers. I had a machine trapped on a Windows 8 until recently and lack of ctrl+l was infuriating! If you are "one of the 10000" about this today, don't beat yourself up about this, explorer's ctrl+l hasn't been around very long.

I think it used to be F4 or F6 or something for Explorer. I also used to use F6 in firefox, took some time re-learning Ctrl+L when that changed. (Edit: F6 still works, but it cycles elements (one which is the address bar) so ctrl+l is better)

Alt-D. I have this shortcut so well ingrained in my head that duckduckgo is nearly broken for me. They have a single shortcut alt+d that searches for results from the same domain. This is enabled by default, so if you use ddg as your default, it can't be disabled for private browsing mode (I use private browsing mode to avoid opening a full browser session with extensions and saved tabs/windows).

Anyone who captures keyboard shortcuts in the browser using function keys like Ctrl/alt (outside of applications like games, rich text entry, and software like Google apps) needs to rethink the way their website works. This includes squarespace(?) intercepting ESC, and websites that do server-side searching. Worse yet, when I press Ctrl+f, I want to search the current page for a word, not search your website. (I saw this recently, and it was only made worse because you couldn't actually dismiss the search overlay without reloading the page)

This also works in all modern browsers, I use this hundreds of time per day.

As does ALT+D, as with browsers.

Since the Ribbon was added in Windows 8 opening a shell in your Windows default shell option (which defaults to PowerShell in recent Windows 10 now, but can be swapped back to CMD) has been directly on the File menu-tab. This also means there's a direct keyboard shortcut (Alt+F,R or Alt+F,S for more options in Windows 10, including Alt+F,S,A to open an Admin PowerShell).

The Ribbon gets a lot of flak for seeming complex or ugly (including from this article), but it added a lot of sweet Power User tools in easy to find places, and everything keyboard shortcut-able, if you give it a chance.

Equivalents on a Mac: drag a folder onto terminal's icon in the dock to open a shell there, and "open ." in a shell to open finder there.

`start .` would also open the current directory. if memory doesn't fail me (I'm now a kubuntu user), start is the equivalent of double-clicking, so `start somefile.txt` would mimic double-click on somefile.txt, `start .` would double-click on the current directory, and so on

How did you happen upon this tidbit?

I imagine going through an actual book and doing all the exercises, or something similar like a course for Windows or whatever might cover it?

Not the one you asked but i'll answer:

I discovered it myself: Most of the program like this one take a path to know where it should open.

I was searching how to open vscode is current folder ("code .") and figured you could do with a bunch of other tools, like cmd, gitextensions, powershell, explorer...

This is a great tip, thank you!

I spent an hour trying to get "Open Command window here" back on Windows 10, to no avail... and it was this simple :D

Another tip -

From the taskbar, you can middle-click on any preview window that pops up to close that window.

cat e.bat

  @echo %~f0
  @if %1. == . goto simple
  @rem explorer /e, %1
  explorer /e, %1
  @goto done
  explorer /e,.
open Explorer from cmd prompt, either where you are or where you want it

My favourite advanced secret feature of Explorer is that you can sort files by multiple columns. First sort by the primary column such as file type, and then shift-click a secondary column such as date to add it as a second sort criteria.

Can't you do that by sorting by the secondary column first, then the primary? I think the sort is stable, so that works.

No, when you non-shift-click a column it seems to reset the secondary sort field to the filename regardless. And this method will make it remember the multpile sort criteria when navigating across folders and restarting Explorer, which goes further than just stable sorting.

Hm, you are right!

omg... THANK YOU!

Starting in Windows 8 :

> The Ribbon is unspeakably messy, and unspeakably large, and as I said I am not going to attack it in detail because this is a long-running Microsoft hobby horse. Suffice to say I feel it is a usability disaster and does not belong in any program let alone Explorer, however, it has the one saving grace that it is both collapsible, and defaults to that state, so most users almost certainly never even found out it existed, making this a lean, usable Explorer wrapped in a weirdly noisy border.

I always find this ribbon to be incredibly ill-designed, may it be in Explorer or in MS Office : the biggest icons I almost never use whereas the ones I use most are painfully small (font management in MS Word to cite but one).

I find the Ribbon's contextual options perfect. When I'm at the root of My Computer, it's useful to see "Map Network Drive". When I'm in any other location, I don't care about that, so it's gone. When I click on a ZIP file it's useful to see options for extraction, etc.

The Ribbon is far more useful for new users. It's true that if you memorized the Excel 97 menu layout you may not find things exactly where they were, but most users would never have been able to find things they wanted in the menu anyway.

My experience is that people who complain about the ribbon largely use keyboard shortcuts (which still exist) anyway, if they've even used Windows in the last decade.

Maybe people will like the Ribbon more if reminded that it replaced an MSIE-powered sidebar.

The ribbon replaced menus. These menus no longer exist. The sidebars also no longer exist, but they didn't have as much functionality as the menus did.

I get a sense the ribbon design is a bit aspirational, with emphasis on the things they think you should use instead of what is actually used. For example, I’m sure they feel you should be using styles instead of fonts, and so the styles control takes up a lot more real estate than the font chooser.

Some of the Ribbon Designs are aspirational, but also some of the Ribbon Designs are simply telemetry-based, with an emphasis on the things users do most. I'm rarely surprised how many people complaining that the things they use most aren't well emphasized are also among the first to disable telemetry.

The intersection of the aspirational and telemetry-based approaches is something of the "Office 20% Rule". The long standing aphorism is that everybody only uses about 20% of the features of a given Office application, but that everybody's 20% is different. That "Rule" is exactly why the Ribbon will never be "perfect" in what it emphasizes, it can only aspire to try its best given the goals it has (aspirations) and the data available (telemetry).

Well, you should be using styles. It's just that most people like micromanaging document looks and can't be bothered to create new styles.

I've found it to be great for mouseless control. Try hitting Alt to get the vimperator-like navigation based on labeled popups.

I think this approach is much better for power users than the old combo hotkeys - it's explorable, customizable, and memorizable at the same time, so you can both learn it easily and be productive.

Maybe somebody here knows - is there a ribbon search that shows you where to find something in the ribbon (especially in Office)? It has a search box that lets you just run the thing you've searched for, but that doesn't really help you find it in future. It at least shows you the icon, so you can then hunt through all the ribbons for that icon, but that's hardly ideal.

After reading this comment, I opened up my explorer to notice, there is a ribbon there. In the default overview it actually has some buttons I would use (but it's the small ones) as I don't regularly add network mounts or addresses.

I think I ignored it after having no use for it in the beginning (and as my usual operations in the explorer are mostly navigation based).

The article says that Windows 95 file explorer is not that deeply altered from File Manager. While this might be somewhat true in visual sense, it is completely different beast in what it does.

File Manager was just what it says on the tin and showed directories and files, while Explorer displays what is essentially an arbitrary graph of COM objects and allows you to call methods on them. One particularly notable point about that is that it is not that MS renamed directories to folders in Windows 95, these are names for two slightly different concepts. Directories are on filesystem, while folder is essentially anything that can be shown as explorer window (including desktop, control panel, various synthesized views of start menu contents, "god-mode menu"...).

Ah yes, the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_Master_Control_Panel_s...

> The shortcut is implemented by creating a folder with the extension .{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}

What about “Libraries”? I could never tell quite what they were trying to do.

Libraries are great. They were intended to be a handy tool for casual Windows users, but unfortunately did not get the UX clear/simple enough for casual users so it got relegated to the Power User tools most people will ignore (and de-emphasized in Windows 10 to the point where it's mostly only Power Users left that will bother to find Libraries and activate it).

The attempted explanation from the article.

> Windows 7 introduced this concept - Libraries, meta-spaces that grouped together multiple actual folders on the disk to create what database developers call a view. The Pictures location is not just a folder, it's potentially several folders. Don't worry about it, Windows will figure this out for you and simply present what you wish to see. An interesting idea I don't believe anyone wanted, or that in fact really worked at all.

Libraries work pretty great. There's still a few issues with them, mostly in specific applications that use older common dialogs for whatever compatibility reasons, but they do what they are designed to do: a Library is simply a virtual folder that aggregates other folders. The article's comparison is to a database view versus a table and that's an accurate analogy.

Any folder can be in a given library with one big caveat (and it is possibly the biggest that I've seen often trips casual users) so long as it is actively indexed by the Windows Search services (which is why it especially breaks the casual users that are the sort of mid-level almost power users that heard somewhere turning off Windows Search services was a "performance boost"). (Because it is Search services that provide the "view", and is the database powering the virtual folder.)

The default Libraries are based on the old school My breakdowns: My Pictures, My Documents, My Music, My Videos. But you can create your own Library of any combination of folders of interest to you.

One place it is very useful is for instance my Documents library. I can have one view that shows Documents I've got stored locally on the device only, stuff I've got in Dropbox, stuff I've in OneDrive, stuff I've got in iCloud, stuff I've got in Resilio Sync shares. It doesn't matter to me "where" I've got that particular file stored, I can search/browse the Library and access/filter/group all of the files in one place.

I can even set the default save location to whichever cloud (or otherwise) service I most trust at the moment, so if I just save a new file to my Documents library, it'll save to the Resilio Sync folder I chose this week. Last week it was a OneDrive folder, and maybe next week my needs will change again I will be back to the local-only folder. No matter which "where" it is currently pointing to, I can just select the Library in the File > Save dialog, save, and the Library will handle remembering which folder I wanted to save to this week.

OneDrive today offers the option to entirely replace the local-only Documents folder, and if that's the only provider I used that might be a good option. Libraries fit really well in this world where I have multiple providers for different needs and with different storage capabilities.

On my work computer one of those Documents folders might be a file share (so long as it is a relatively recent file server with up-to-date Offline and Search Indexing capabilities).

The same expands out to other roles like Pictures/Videos/Music. (I have multiple cloud providers for my music. I've got OneDrive and iCloud with different sets of photos. Etc.)

The idea is useful for other things. For instance, I sometimes have multiple folders for things like Git Repos, splitting them across drives due to file size for instance, and having a Repos library that shows me every Repo I'm working on no matter which drive it is physically stored on can be very useful.

You can also do some of that with NT Junction Points / Reparse Points, but that's even more extremely a Power User-only approach (and sometimes not recommended simply because of how many footguns are lying around there). Doing it as a virtual folder that's really just a Search View is all I really need in most cases.

The biggest trade-off is mostly that Libraries don't exist in the Command Line world, I can't CD to a Library in CMD. (If there were the right sort of Provider I should be able to CD to a Library directly in PowerShell, though sadly a quick search doesn't turn up an out of the box PowerShell provider for them; a shame.) But I can still open the Library in Explorer and select any subfolder in the Library and File > Open in PowerShell (Alt+F,R) it, and Explorer will do the work of figuring out which storage place it is in (its full path) for me.

I wish Windows Save/Open dialogues would have links to already open Explorer windows (much like the links to Documents.)

Rationale: Project are often contained in a single root folder. I often start by opening this folder in Explorer. Some programs can be started by double clicking files. Others cannot. Saving new files always requires interacting with the save dialog and thus browsing to the project folder again.

I'm reminded of the Acorn Archimedes: instead of a save dialog, saving produced a tiny "explorer" window containing the file, which you were expected to drag-and-drop to its save location.

RiscOS had some other interesting features, such as all menus being context menus. RoxOS was a short-lived experiment in bringing some RiscOS concepts to Linux, including AppDirs, only having context menus, and even the drag-to-save functionality.

ROX-Filer is still my favorite file manager for lightweight desktops today.

That would be awesome feature.

You can copy directory path from explorer, paste it into open/save dialog and it'll navigate there. But your suggestion is much easier and intuitive to use.

Actually Explorer and open/save dialogs have some kind of recently used (or most used) directories. But they always contain some junk for me. Listing currently opened directories there could help without need to rework UI.

This is something MacOS has over Windows.

Dragging a folder from Finder into the safe file dialogue opens that folder in the dialogue.

You can also drag a search result from Spotlight in to the save file dialogue.

Also works with the open file dialogue.

That works with GTK and Qt file dialogs on Linux too

In Windows, you can just copy the file path from Explorer and paste it into the save file dialog.

Yep, I’m aware of that.

MacBook touchpad right under the keyboard makes drag n drop feel like a superior method.

For context, I have a fairly extensive AutoHotKey script and a 22 button Razer Naga configured to automate repetitive tasks on my Windows 10 work PC, and Windows 10 has proven itself to be super stable and robust at work and home, so I’m by no means a bias MacOS fan or whatever, and if I’m honest I really do prefer Windows 10... and my 2013 MBPr died the other day, and there’s not much chance of me buying another MacBook any time soon because they’re over priced and lack ports.

Where was I going with this?

Oh yeah, there’s some things MacOS does that are great UI design....

On macOS too, you can press cmd-shift-g and paste the path.

I second your rationale because I always do that like you.

And the good news is that, you can achieve that with Listary. I'm using an old version of it due to few years ago I found that new versions do perform as fast as the old ones.

Thanks for the tip! Will give it a try.

I like the idea and wrote a longer comment. But I must object to your two universal statements as they are without further qualification I find them false.

It is possible to start any program via a file association even if it does nothing with the file that the action was activated on.

Saving a new file only requires the file chooser if the application was started first. If the file is created in Explorer via the New ... Templates and then opened the use of the file chooser can be avoided.

It's too bad Templates got flooded with junk back in the Windows 95 days and so people stopped using and Developers stopped creating Templates. OS/2's heartier version of Templates, I recall being extremely useful. Windows' Templates seem derelict and forgotten ruins of the ancients in Windows today.

Isn't a template just an empty document/file/archive stored in a specific folder somewhere? That doesn't require and special technical knowledge or anything, just save an empty file there.

I have a dozen or so software shortcuts (notepad++, cmd, etc) in the SendTo folder, which works similarly.

The issue is that it is a small tragedy of the commons. The more apps put templates in the Templates folder the longer that context menu gets and the harder it is use. Context menus have never been a great place for lists of options that might grow unbounded over time. In the early years of Windows 9x you could directly watch that: almost every application installed a Template because it was a new thing to do and Windows encouraged it, then users started complaining they had too many items in that menu and it was too slow and they stopped using it (or never bothered learning it in the first place), then all of the applications stopped installing templates.

(The SendTo folder had a similar wave of too many then too few applications installing to it. I feel like every application that really made sense on the context menu seem to have moved to direct context menu entries in the main context menu rather than SendTo.)

This feature is actually implemented in OS/2, which was a Microsoft project at one point. It came so close to reaching windows, and would have made the system common dialogs far more powerful.

Related and kind of interesting, the original File Manager was open sourced and recompiled for modern Windows.


Floating windows in floating windows, I can't believe I forgot that was ever a thing.

It's called Multiple Document Interface (MDI) and in some instances can be quite useful. MS have completely depreciated it now to the extent that MDI apps no longer render their window chrome properly since Windows 7.

Right move IMHO, I always found it a bit confusing and somewhat arbitrary.

However, removing MDI from Office apps was not followed by implementing a persistent-background-app replacement. So now you open a Word document, wait with splash-screen, look at the document, close it, then open another Word document, wait with splash-screen, repeat... so annoying.

I do not see how it is confusing (to someone who is familiar with computers - i can see how some people who aren't used to computers might be confused by the maximization state).

It is very useful in several types of applications, like image editors where you want to have multiple images open while having docked toolbars/controls, avoiding a waste of screen space and a clean background. This way you can have, e.g. the same image visible in two views or you can have an image that you pick colors from to paint or you can have several tileable images as "materials" to quickly a brush with the clone tool, etc. Personally i always found the UI of Paint Shop Pro 7 the best image editor UI and its MDI-based interface is a big reason for that (though not the only reason).

In fact i find MDI so useful that i recently implemented it in Lazarus' LCL backend for Win32 - the next version of Lazarus is going to be the first one to support MDI under Windows. The reason is that i want to use it in a game engine editor i'm working on to open different resource types inside their own windows that often do not warrant using a fullscreen window (e.g. a list editor).

And actually the two main annoyances i have with the most common "solution" (a work around really) of using tabs is that very often most of the content space in a tab is wasted since there isn't really a reason to have it cover the entire main window while at the same time you can only have one view visible at any time (no side by side or anything like that). In theory you can split the tabs in different groups but again you are forcing the views to adhere to the main window - and in practice the only application i've seen doing that is Visual Studio (which also has an in-editor split functionality and the number of times i needed either was much less than the number of times i needed to have documents/views visible side by side in other types of applications).

Honestly i think Microsoft did a mistake for abandoning MDI just because some people weren't able to use it back in the 90s. Windows has a ton more stuff that can be confusing to a newbie but they aren't getting removed because they are useful.

MDI's don't play well with multiple screens. While they have some good applications as you suggest, such as image editing - Spreadsheets and Word Processing were not great with MDI. The shared context such as pallets don't apply for documents.

While i think i'll agree about word processing, assuming there is a split view option, i'm not sure about spreadsheets since you often use those as tables and you may want to have multiple tables visible at the same time.

About multiple screens you are right but a tabbed interface doesn't work with multiple screens either (while having all the other issues i mentioned) and having multiple toplevel windows means you get unnecessary duplication (and hence waste of screen space) of UI for each toplevel window, you have the window switcher (taskbar and alt+tab) "polluted" for each document view, etc which can be very annoying.

And really there is no rule against having multiple MDI host windows (outside of framework limitations - due to LCL inheriting the API from Delphi, the API assumes a single MDI form with multiple MDI clients, but the pure Win32 API doesn't have that limitation nor does Qt's own MDI implementation AFAIK) so you could simply have one of those per screen. Some tabbed interface programs do that (e.g. i think you can open multiple windows in Eclipse).

Though TBH personally i never use multiple screens so i don't know about that.

Depreciate is about monetary value, deprecate in software terminology means something to be removed, and obsolete means it has been removed. As per Cambridge and others, you're correct since they don't include the aforementioned definition. Merriam-Webster[1] and Oxford[2] for example do.

[1]: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deprecate

[2]: https://www.lexico.com/definition/deprecate

Yes, that's the wrong word. Please note the difference in usage.

No, I used it correctly for what I was saying. Don't put words in my mouth please.

MDI has not been removed. It's been DEPRECIATED as in it's still there and it still works (kinda) but MS no longer see value in it's function. My terminology for what I was saying was correct.

This sub-thread is a classic example of HN pedantry. Down vote me into oblivion if it makes you happy. /sigh

But deprecated doesn't mean it's "been removed". If I understand what you were originally trying to say, then deprecated is a better fitting word than depreciated because that is a financial term. Whereas deprecated is a common software term meaning exactly what you said "it's still there and it still works [...] but no longer see value in it's function".

Not pendantry, just pointing mistakes...

If you want a good read: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deprecation

Wow! It's interesting that somebody from Microsoft (Craig Wittenberg) still uses and maintains this!

"Windows 98 was famously controversial, at least in nerd circles, for the integration of Internet Explorer into Explorer itself"

How interesting to see attitudes change. Today, using a web browser and HTML/CSS/JavasScript to write your app (whether as a SaaS app or a desktop app using Electron) is one of the most popular options for creating apps.

In fact, Microsoft explored this space many years ago too. Remember Microsoft Money 2000? A desktop app with an interface akin closer to a web page than a traditional desktop GUI. Microsoft called it Inductive User Interface:


> How interesting to see attitudes change. Today, using a web browser and HTML/CSS/JavasScript to write your app (whether as a SaaS or a desktop app using Electron) is one of the most popular options for creating apps.

I'm not sure that's a change. The IE integration was what the MS developers wanted, against the wishes of nerd-users. Electron apps today are very popular for developers, and nerd-users constantly complain about it.

This * 1000.

Users are not clamouring for HTML apps (and really never have - most users get annoyed by inconsistent and mutating interfaces), it's just a way for developers to save money and time. End of.

They are clamoring for their slowness though; they just don't know that the reason for being slow and heavy is that they're a web browser running a web page.

And then there was Active Desktop. I remember setting an HTML file as desktop wallpaper, so I could have an animated wallpaper. :)

(Why I wanted my wallpaper to visually distract me at every step is beyond me today, but I had fun.)

All I remember about Active Desktop is how it would make everything slower. I would convert JPG images to BMP before setting them as desktop wallpaper, because JPG would require Active Desktop turned on (along with its slowness), BMP didn't.

I was using it to read RSS, show some network info such as external IP and have a text field which could be used as a notepad. It was superseded by the arguably better designed, but more resource intensive, gadget system.

Which was then removed for...reasons. Of course. Why would you want to have little bits of software that could run on your desktop? You know, like sticky notes, a larger clock, weather that doesn't require opening more software/website...

> is one of the most popular options for creating apps.

...and still one of the less popular options for using an app

Weeeeelll... Windows 98 Explorer wasn't really an HTML/CSS/JavaScript application, AFAIK the HTML/JS side mainly contained an ActiveX control that exposed the same shell control that was used in the Win95 explorer and file dialog.

IE even supported HTA ("Hyper-Text Application") a file format that absolutely was a direct precursor to both Electron and modern day PWAs.

HTA is still supported. So is WSH using either vbscript or jscript (unfortunately, powershell has replaced WSH for new functionally, rather than supporting both. Afaik there's no way to manage hyper-v or other newer features from WSH)

Still supported? In zombie mode, at best.

WSH is considered a liability by so many admins these days and all the top search hits are on disabling it. I cannot imagine preferring WSH to PowerShell today; everything about PowerShell is a much better experience (including the simple fact that its security model is better and it is nothing near as much of a 0-day worm/virus vector.)

HTA only works with the classic IE Trident engine which is woefully out of date with web platform technologies in 2020. Anyone still working with HTA that hasn't been allowed to migrate to Electron (or PWA) has my sympathies. I do not envy whatever terrible political decisions have led to that.

HTA works perfectly fine as a launcher for legacy software. I wouldn't touch it for more complicated functionality, but a while back, I wrote an HTA splash screen/launcher for some old software that had been updated. At the time, the alternative was to either place the software on the startup menu, or to put desktop shortcuts (this software is intended to be used on a dedicated computer; it's not intended to be online or used otherwise). The HTA runs at login, displays the software name, the company's name and address, and allows opening a couple software packages and help documents with alt text. To me, this is a perfectly acceptable use of HTA, and at the same time, one of the worst possible uses I can imagine for Electron. HTA simplifies maintenance by a non-developer (edit paths and names in the source file depending on the to-be-installed software)

For more complicated automation and interaction, powershell is absolutely more powerful and useful than WSH. However, powershell takes at least 5 seconds to load (usually longer), the window can't be hidden, and it generally works in a different manner. I want to run software in the background. The software does not support it. I do not want to use scheduled tasks, I want to run it on demand (on boot, and from the desktop). I don't want my grandmother calling me up because a black window flashed on her screen, scrolled a bunch of text, then disappeared. I don't want Quassel Core's window bugging me when I'm using my desktop on the occasions I decide to run it. I've got a vbscript that looks for the currently enabled screensaver and launches it, so if it's been changed to a photo album or marquee, the appropriate one starts (the alternative being to make shortcuts to individual scr files).

Windows has no other built-in way to run some simple logic without running a visible command prompt that might confuse, annoy. To me, vbscript allows me to put a simple conditional in front of a shortcut, without perceptively taking longer to run said software and without requiring it to be visible. HTA allows a simple launcher/task chooser. Neither uses much resources.

If you had fought with the Redlof virus, your 90s were awesome! Windows 98 Explorer had a feature that allowed to customize the view by adding the `Folder.htt` and `Desktop.ini` files inside a folder. The `Folder.htt` actually allowed to run VBScript inside it.

This was exploited by a virus named `VBS.Redlof.a` and spread everywhere around the world infecting all Win98 computers. If you accidentally open a folder with the Redlof files in it, it will infect the computer, make their own copies to every other folder that your visit, writes themselves into your Floppy disks, thus spreading into other computers where those floppies are used.

This article took me back to those days!

Here's a fun story: I stopped using Windows when I was 12, almost 20 years ago but Windows explorer was something I used 2000 times a day and I got so used to opening it with win+e that even till this day I set this shortcut to open Nautilus.

Muscle memory is a bitch. I'm primarily on Windows, but whenever I need to install and mess with Linux the first thing I do is find a way to make the window manager tile to half screen with "Win+arrows". Cannot live without that shortcut.

Yeah me too. I have to say that even if I love Linux and run it on all my personal machines, the keyboard shortcuts of Windows tend to be much more effective than let's say KDE or Gnome. Control+shift+N to make new folders, win + arrows to move and snap windows, Win+L to lock, etc. are quite ergonomic. As a comparison, KDE defaults to f10 to make a new folder (terrible as far to reach, and usually mapped to a multimedia key on laptops), and has no default keybindings to move windows

This article would be even better if it showed the evolution of Mac OS's Finder through the years. The two undoubtedly influenced each other (possibly with one side being influenced more than the other).

For instance, I believe the 'duality' of Explorer views (one without tree views, one with) was a response to the success of the Mac Finder -- it was intended to present a simple UI for managing files. The "Explore" mode was a power-user interface that needed you to right-click and choose Explore, or press Win+E (or create a permanent shortcut). To be fair, because right-clicking was new in Windows 95, the help materials did emphasize right-clicking. As the article below indicates, the Win95 team did consider designing an entire 'Beginner UI' for beginner users, but eventually dropped the idea.

This article[1] (it has previously been on HN before) has some interesting insights on the design of Windows 95 with respect to Explorer. Bear in mind, one of Win95's design goals was to be usable for both those new to computers as well as power users.

> Beginning users and many intermediates were confused by the two-pane view of File Cabinet. (See Figure 3.) They were unsure of the relationship between the panes and how to navigate between folders. Beginners were often overwhelmed by the visual complexity of the File Cabinet and had more basic problems, such as not understanding how folders could exist inside of other folders. Many users were also confused by the Parent Folder icon. It appeared in every folder and looked like a file, yet was really a navigation control for moving up the hierarchy one level.

[1] https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/238386.238611


> [For Windows 8+, referring to the icons at the top of the toolbar] Microsoft remains absolutely addicted to the idea of a toolbar with "commonly used" commands on it. Despite the clear internal order to get rid of all these toolbars, someone insisted that they had to remain, had to, and so they got stuffed into the titlebar.

Given that Explorer took the "Ribbon" idea from Office 2007 (probably because Steven Sinofsky had a hand in both), the icons at the top of the toolbar are much more likely to be Explorer's implementation of Office's Quick Action Toolbar. In fact, looking at Office 365 UI, there seems to be a trend of bundling more functionality into the Title Bar these days.

...such as not understanding how folders could exist inside of other folders

I find this bit apalling. Some users were confused by that. So what? Do you take away the concept of nesting directories altogether because beginners are confused? They didn't, but we've being suffering a sneaky war on treeview for twenty five years. Every version it's more difficult to tweak the file explorer back to 95, losing some features forever. Real state is consumed by ribbons, quick access, libraries, all kind of stuff that's hard to delete if at all possible.

Last annoyance (it's also the shell, but not exactly the FM) is the taskbar hover previews. If you make the mistake to let the mouse over some app icon in the taskbar, a pop-up window appears over your current window showing a preview of the iconized application. There used to be a hack to disable that crap, setting a high delay for the hover. They've removed that with an automated update.

>> Beginning users and many intermediates were confused by the two-pane view of File Cabinet

Definitely my experience as a pre-teen. The 9x UI was much more intuitive.

> there seems to be a trend of bundling more functionality into the Title Bar these days.

Yes and I find it annoying, because 1) they are so small, and 2) now you cannot intuitively know whether something on the titlebar is a button or decoration. Flat UIs suck.

For anyone looking for a Norton Commander / File Cabinet two pane interface, check out Saladin. https://saladin.mimec.org/

Right-clicking was a thing in windows 3.x.

The author finds the My Computer/Explorer dichotomy strange, but to me the aim always felt perfectly clear. Reducing the visual clutter and mental overhead of the directory tree in the ”casual user” mode, while still providing a more powerful mode for advanced users. Windows 95 also hid file extensions, as well as hidden and system files, by default. This design direction to abstract away filesystem details has, of course, continued over the years, especially on mobile OSs—although recently even Apple, begrudgingly, has admitted that maybe the concept of ”files” is useful even on iOS, after all.

It would have been more interesting a dichotomy if the "Folder view" was truly a spatial navigation system, which it seems like it wanted to be but never committed to.

It seems a shame that all OSes today seem to have given up on spatial navigation.

My pet peeve with every GUI file browser I can remember using: They all try to be smart and occasionally ignore your carefully configured view settings.

I want a massive checkbox that says "Never, EVER, try to automatically determine the best viewing mode. Really. Never!"

The best viewing mode is detailed.

Everything else should be regulated out of existence.


The best view to sort pictures !

Ha, I remember the Windows 3.11 File Manager [0], it was always anoying when you accidentally clicked on the drive A: icon and the explorer would hang for a few seconds as the drive spun up and checked whether a disk was inserted.

[0] https://gekk.info/articles/images/wfw311_explorer.png

I believe it was the case in Win98SE as well, as it was my first PC OS and I remember this issue. I was always so annoyed when I miss clicked AGAIN.

The Windows NT4/95 Explorer was the best because I could actually configure the exact same details view everywhere and the Explorer would remember and keep my settings.

Actually respecting the user's settings is something modern Microsoft doesn't view as important anymore.

You can still do that.

Shameless plug: I'm currently trying a new approach to file system navigation in my new visual file manager 'cryo'


Okay I absolutely love this!

Thanks :) it's very limited yet compared to other file managers but will hopefully gain more features soon.

It's so weird, I can't help but feel nostalgic when I see Windows XP screenshots. It seems I really like it's aesthetic. I'm quite sure it wasn't the case at the time.

Windows 95 does it for me. I still remember how advanced it looked like compared to 3.1! The XP default theme on the other hand still feels like a fairly unsuccessful and in some way infantilizing attempt at eyecandy. Around here at least it was commonly known as the ”Teletubbies” theme.

I always used it in "windows 2000" skin mode to save on computer resources. Can still vividly remember the day I got a new computer with enough RAM that running the Win Xp default theme didn't really make an impact.

I think the design that made sense stopped with Win XP. The following iterations just make less and less sense and I'm a win user since 3.1.

For me, the pinnacle of Windows Explorer UI was Windows 2000. I am such a fan of it that for the many years I was a Mac user, I wished that there was a Finder replacement that was more like Windows Explorer.

The change in Explorer I hated the most was when they switched the '+' in the tree view to disclosure triangles.

I still use Classic Explorer [1] on every Windows computer to try and get File Explorer to look like older Explorers as much as possible.

[1] http://classicshell.net/features/#explorer

From 2020/retrospect it seems obvious that people would not want to switch from local files to web-pages in the same window, but it's also kind of a shame that their integrated rich-content vision didn't work out. I would rather have a unified local machine+internet experience where local and network resources are fungible, instead of "the computer is one way to run a web browser". I guess PWAs are the next chance at something better, if they can ever get things like local file access worked out and deployed.

And still no tabs. I know about Clover, QTTabbar (my current choice) and Groupy, but it still blows my mind we've had tabs in web browsers for nearly 20 years and not in local explorers.

The Sets experiment (heterogeneous tabs for nearly every Windows title bar) from the Windows team was really cool. I was sad that I was never in one of the Insider cohorts to directly test it.

It's unfortunate their testing feedback decided not to move forward with it, and that also the engineering complexities that happened because Edge switched to Chromium and would no longer be able to maintain some of the things Sets relied upon.

Rumors (er, GitHub Issues) have it PowerToys might explore the idea again some day.

I found TidyTabs much better.. less visual clutter and small memory footprint

I can highly recommend altap salamander. It's an incredibly useful two panel file manager. You can switch between detail view and a big picture preview with alt+3 and alt+5. You can select folders/files with space, and in case of folders it will also show you the total file size of that folder. It has icons for available drives in a toolbar, and you can configure the F4 key so that it opens the focused file with an editor of your choice, notepad++ in my case.

Interesting thing about File Explorer is that the 20-year-old APIs for extending it still work! While File Explorer has changed between Windows versions, the underlying Win32 API seems to be the same.

A year ago I dove into shell extensions [1] to implement a drag-and-drop gesture for a file type. I wanted to create a bookmarking system for files in File Explorer based on nothing more than the bookmark being named after the file I want to bookmark (so they're next to each other when sorted from A-Z) [2]. I had not used Visual C++ before but the tutorials I found from the early 2000s, and some helpful advice from MSFT via Stackoverflow, got me through it.

There is also a simpler way to write Shell extensions using a C# wrapper if that works for your use case [3].

[1]: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/win32/shell/shell-e... [2]: https://filemark.app/ [3]: https://github.com/dwmkerr/sharpshell

Replacing the menu interface with the ribbon interface in Win10 and Office... I am not sure what the thought process was for Microsoft to have done that. Sometimes you already have something solid and it doesn’t need change. I liked being able to navigate the explorer UI with the keyboard with hints provided directly in the UI. For example, Alt+T O opened the tools menu, then the Options dialog box. But now, there’s no menu....

The ribbon came in MS Office 2007 as a result of user studies that showed that menus weren’t effective in showing the users what was possible or what features were available in an application. That’s why this new UI (“Fluent UI”) was designed for better discoverability. [1]

Once you do something new and different, I suppose it’s natural to copy it over everywhere else (like Windows Explorer).

[1]: http://channel9.msdn.com/Events/MIX/MIX08/UX09

It was very much an attempted solution to a self-made problem. Default toolbar config in Office programs had become so overwhelming that on a 1024x800 standard-issue corporate monitor you could literally see only a paragraph of text in the content area.

The true solution to that was probably deeper than clustering toolbar items by context. The very concept of a toolbar probably needed to be challenged.

> The very concept of a toolbar probably needed to be challenged.

Uh, that's exactly what the Ribbon did? It challenged the ideas of a traditional toolbar by going back to first principals far enough to the point where traditional toolbar stalwarts hate it on sight.

Half the reason we have debates about the Ribbon is precisely because it challenged the very concept of a toolbar.

I understand the frustration at having changes work against muscle memory, but you can still navigate the UI as you described - it's just that "Options" is bundled under "View" now. alt,v,y,enter or alt,v,y,o will open the options dialog. The hints are now hidden until you hit alt now though =/

Right... it’s a solution for folks who have this existing knowledge. The aim I guess is to transition folks to non-keyboard devices for navigating the UI...

Menus in Windows had already lost the accelerator key decorations by default well before the Ribbon (by almost a decade at that point). The Ribbon didn't cause the loss of always visible accelerator key UI, the Ribbon was built when accelerator key UI was already lost for being too noisy.

To the author: stop railing about toolbars. Misguided as Microsoft is in many cases, they do have metrics for those things and people do press them. I can also add a ton of anecdotal evidence pointing that even super smart casual users don't know or use keyboard shortcuts. Even for copy paste, in many cases.

Sad from our point of view, but a lot of people have better things to do with their lives and we should stop judging them.

I like toolbars for quick, frequent-but-not-that-much actions, like exporting to a pdf in LibreOffice.

But I also like menu bars, as those give you some shortcuts if you often use a functionality. As an example, and since I type this into Firefox right now, after glancing at the menus, Alt+V,Y,N disables the page stylesheets, Alt+T,S synchronizes the account, etc.

like menubars, the toolbars give you the short cuts when you hover over them.

I love this, find it fascinating but this isn't right:

"which is historically interesting only because it shows the direction Microsoft's product lines had shifted - suddenly NT was the line where new UI developments were being made and 9x was getting hand-me-downs."

win me was the breeding ground for things that made it into win 2003, things like sfc, msconfig etc - all the utilities went into me first and then to 2003.

And the endless question is: When we have fluent design UI version of Explorer?

Treat yourself on the many takes of file explorer designs: https://dribbble.com/tags/file_explorer

There's a UWP version called Files UWP: https://github.com/files-community/files-uwp

I hope never. The leaks/concepts look awful.

Windows 3.1 was so beautiful. Why can't we have pretty UI anymore?

I'll add my recommendation for [OneCommander](https://mobile.twitter.com/onecommander) as a better alternative to File Explorer. it uses modified Miller Columns (like what you see in OSX/Finder) for file display. V3 alpha is hopefully out in a few weeks.

I still can't get the left sidebar in file explorer to scroll properly. Its speed of scroll is directly tied to the width of the sidebar.

I remember my friend modified the win 3.1 startup shell and replaced progman.exe with winfile.exe. Program manager wasn't needed. You could run any program from file manager, and it also had File->Run... menu option.

The real joy was modifying the Windows 95 startup shell on upgraded machines to progman.exe or winfile.exe and really confusing users about their "Windows 95.1"

35 years of development, and it still will crash my shell the moment I right click in a slow network folder! At least MS in their infinite wisdom fixed the problem by simply restarting the shell again once it crashes! Genius!

For document tabs, file tags, notes, and so on, can I recommend my DocxManager (https://docxmanager.com) for "File Manager for Word documents"?

As a linux user, I really wish that the Nautilus team wouldn't have changed some UI features all in recent major version changes - it makes me wish Windows Explorer from the Win 2000 area back sometimes.

I find Dolphin much better than Nautilus, it is probably the only traditional graphical file manager I have used that is better than Explorer. If you have a Gnome desktop set up it can be fiddly to integrate a KDE application with it nicely, but in my opinion it is worth it for Dolphin alone, one of the best engineered of the normal desktop Linux applications.

If you want to stick with GTK, Nemo is a fork of Nautilus just before all the features started being removed, which aims to stay more featureful like a traditional file manager. It's also a little bit more performant than Nautilus recently too I think, but both are still slow compared to eg. Thunar or Dolphin.

>It's also a little bit more performant than Nautilus recently too I think, but both are still slow compared to eg. Thunar or Dolphin.

Laughing in Midnight commander

Dolphin is approximately as fast as mc for me at listing large directories, both the same speed as 'ls'. Which is quite impressive when you consider how much more metadata it will show than mc and that it has a full graphical widget displaying them with thumbnail previews. AFAIK mc can't even show mimetypes in the file list, but Dolphin will load them asynchronously after listing the directory as you scroll.

Ranger is pretty nice to work with as far as TUIs are concerned -- bulk rename, N-split panes, tabs, image previews... it does a lot, and the default view is surprisingly usable to look for a file.

The only thing I miss with it is a "goto" shortcut, à la vim sneak. Ironically, Dolphin or Explorer go to a file when you start typing its name. Don't get me started on GNOME searching files.

Seems like ranger-autojump[0] is what you're looking for

0: https://github.com/fdw/ranger-autojump

There’s an interesting article about ADHD on authors website: https://gekk.info/articles/adhd.html

I switched from Windows to OSX 15 years ago, the only thing I miss sometimes is the Windows Explorer, though it's not perfect it's really better.

Could not agree more. Finder is a mess. Explorer just gets the job done.

8.1 seems to have looked the nicest. The borders of explorer should have been transparent like the taskbar.

Since Windows 95 always better than macOS Finder (using macOS myself). Copy and Paste anyone on Mac? ;)

Enter to rename gets me every time.

Watch me save this page to blow my mind a thousand times over.

Still not as good as Thunar.

Or XTree Gold/ZTree

I like Thunar, but what particular features of Thunar are better?

For me, it's the lack of bloat. I just want to see a directory, I don't need the overhead that explorer.exe requires.

File browsing is all that's needed. What struck me as horrid in the 90s was just how much bloat there was which really pushed up the system requirements. Quite a few times I'd drop out of Windows and just do what I needed in xtree gold. Not because of a feature that it had, but because I could do it quicker. It had a hex viewer though which was nice.

I remember browsing through word docs in hex and spotting some system info that was embedded in the saved documents. Those were the days.

Thunar seems to present directories in a way that makes better use of screen space somehow, it doesn't seem to waste space quite so much. I can't really explain it very well, but it seems to get more information in less space. Feels faster too. Maybe just usablity.

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