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Windows shell

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Title: Windows shell  
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Subject: Comparison of Microsoft Windows versions, Microsoft Windows, Windows NT, NTFS junction point, Windows Desktop Gadgets
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Windows shell

Windows shell is the graphical user interface for Microsoft Windows. Starting with Windows 8, the legacy Windows Shell has been supplemented by additional elements such as the charms, Quick Links menu and the app switcher, designed based on Metro design language.



Windows Desktop is a full-screen window rendered behind all other windows. It hosts user's wallpaper and an array of computer icons representing:

Files and folders
Users and software may store computer files and folders on Windows desktop. Naturally, on a newly-installed version of Windows, such items do not exist. Software installers commonly place files known as shortcuts on the desktop, allowing users to launch installed software. Users may store personal documents on the desktop.
Special folders
Apart from ordinary files and folders, special folders (also known as "shell folders") may appear on the desktop. Unlike ordinary folders, special folders do not point to an absolute location on a hard disk drive. Rather, they may open a folder whose location differs from computer to computer (e.g. Documents), a virtual folder whose contents is an aggregate of several folders on disk (e.g. Recycle Bin or Libraries) or a folder window whose content is not files, but rather user interface elements rendered as icons for convenience (e.g. Network). They may even open windows that do not resemble a folder at all (e.g. Control Panel).

Starting with Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008, Windows Desktop Gadgets may appear on the desktop. These gadgets are discontinued with Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8.


Windows taskbar is a toolbar-like element that by default, appears as a horizontal bar at the bottom of the desktop. It may be relocated to the top, left or right edges of the screen. Starting with Windows 98, its size can be changed. The taskbar can be configured to stay on top of all applications or to collapse and hide when it is not used. Depending on the version of operating system installed, the following elements may appear on the taskbar respectively from left to right:

  • Start button: Provides access to the Start menu. Removed in Windows 8, in favor of the Start charm (see below), only to be reinstated in Windows 8.1.
  • Quick Links menu: Added in Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012. Invoked by right-clicking on the Start button, or pressing Win+X.[1] Grants access to several frequently used features of Windows, such as accessing the desktop or File Explorer.[2]
  • List of open windows: Most of the taskbar area is by default dedicated to the list open windows. Until Windows 7, the operating system displayed active windows as a depressed button in this list. Starting with Windows 7, the icon for each open window is framed by a translucent box, and multiple open windows for the same program can be accessed by clicking the program's icon. However, the taskbar can be changed to function more as it does with older versions of Windows.
  • Shortcuts: An update to Windows 95 and Windows NT 4 added a Quick Launch Bar that could hold file shortcuts, similar to the desktop. Windows 7 merged this area into the list of open windows by adding "pinning" and "jump list" features.
  • Deskbands: Toolbars provided by Windows or other programs for easier access to that program's functions; for more information, see Taskbar § Desktop toolbars
  • Notification area: Allows programs to display icons representing their status as well as pop-up notifications associated with those icons. By default, Windows volume control, network status, Action Center, date and time are displayed in this area.
  • "Show desktop" button: Allows users to access their desktops. It is added in Windows 7. Not initially visible in Windows 8. Once the mouse cursor is hovered upon for a second, shows the desktop without switching to it. Clicking the button dismisses all open windows and transfers the focus to the desktop. Clicking it again reverts the action.

The charms

The charms in Windows 8

Windows 8 adds a bar containing a set of five shortcuts known as the "charms", invoked by moving the mouse cursor into the top or bottom right-hand corners of the screen, or by swiping from the right edge of a compatible touchpad or touch screen.

The charms consist of:

  1. "Search": Searches for files, system settings, applications, or content provided by applications
  2. "Share": Sends content to another app (not installed by default in Windows Server)
  3. "Start": Opens the Start screen; behaves similarly to the former Start button
  4. "Devices": Sends content to another device, such as a printer (not installed by default in Windows Server)
  5. "Settings": Allows access to system and application settings

Except for the "Start", each charm opens a sidebar with options relevant to the application in focus.[3][4][5]

Start screen

The Start screen, formerly the Start menu, as its name suggests, is a form of start menu in Microsoft Windows. Depending on the version of Windows, the Start screen features the following:

  • Launching applications: The Start screen's primary function is to present a list of shortcuts for installed software, allowing users to launch them.
  • Invoking special folders: Until Windows 8, the Start menu was a mean of invoking special folders such as Computer, Network, Control Panel, etc. In Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012, the only special folder that can be invoked from the Start screen is the desktop.
  • Searching: Starting with Windows Vista, searching for installed software, files and folders became a function of the Start menu.
  • Ending the user session: Logging off and shutdown has always been a function of the Start menu. In Windows 8, the shutdown function was moved out of the Start screen, only to be brought back in Windows 8.1.


Autoplay is a feature introduced in Windows XP that examines newly inserted removable media for content and displays a dialog containing options related to that media.


MS-DOS Executive

MS-DOS Executive file manager

The first public demonstration of Windows, in 1983, had a simplistic shell called the Session Control Layer, which served as a constantly visible menu at the bottom of the screen. Clicking on Run would display a list of programs that one could launch, and clicking on Session Control would display a list of programs already running so one could switch between them.[6]

Windows 1.0, shipped in November 1985, introduced MS-DOS Executive, a simple file manager that differentiated between files and folders by bold type. It lacked support for icons, although this made the program somewhat faster than the file manager that came with Windows 3.0. Programs could be launched by double-clicking on them. Files could be filtered for executable type, or by a user-selected wildcard, and the display mode could be toggled between full and compact descriptions. But the file date column was not Y2K compliant.

Windows 2.0 made no significant change to MS-DOS Executive.

Program Manager

Windows 3.x GUI added Program Manager

Windows 3.0, introduced in May 1990, shipped with a new shell, called Program Manager. Based on Microsoft's work with OS/2 Desktop Manager, Program Manager sorted program shortcuts into groups (although unlike Desktop Manager, these were housed in a single window, in order to show off Microsoft's new Multiple Document Interface).

Program Manager in Windows 3.1 introduced the new Startup group, which Program Manager would check on launch and start any programs it found in it, and wrappable icon titles.[7] Program Manager was also ported to Windows NT 3.1, and retained in Windows NT 3.51.

Start menu

Windows 95 introduced a new shell. The desktop became a container for files (including file shortcuts), folders and special folders such as My Computer, Network Neighborhood and Recycle Bin. Windows Explorer, which replaced File Manager opened both ordinary and special folders. The taskbar was introduced, with an area consisting of buttons representing open windows, a digital clock, a notifications area for background processes and system notifications, and the Start button, which launched the Start menu. The Start menu contained links to settings, recently used files and, like Program Manager before it, shortcuts and program groups.

Program Manager was also included in Windows 95 for backward compatibility, in case the user disliked the new interface.[8] This was included with all versions of Windows up to and including Windows XP Service Pack 1. In SP2 and SP3, PROGMAN.EXE is just an icon library, and it was completely removed from Windows Vista in 2006.

The new shell was also ported to Windows NT, first as the NewShell update for Windows NT 3.51 and then integrated fully into Windows NT 4.0.

Windows Desktop Update

In early 1996, Netscape announced that the next release of its browser, codenamed "Constellation", would completely integrate with Windows and add a new shell, codenamed "HomePort", which would present the same files and shortcuts no matter which machine a user logged in to.[9][10][11] Microsoft started working on a similar Internet Explorer release, codenamed "Nashville". Internet Explorer 4.0 was redesigned and resulted in two products: the standalone IE4 and Windows Desktop Update, which updated the shell with features such as Active Desktop, Active Channels, Web folders, desktop toolbars such as the Quick Launch bars, ability to minimize windows by clicking their button on the taskbar, HTML-based folder customization, single click launching, image thumbnails, folder infotips, web view in folders, Back and Forward navigation buttons, larger toolbar buttons with text labels, favorites, file attributes in Details view, and an address bar in Windows Explorer, among other features. It also introduced the My Documents shell folder.

Future Windows releases, like Windows 95C (OSR 2.5) and Windows 98, included Internet Explorer 4 and the features of the Windows Desktop Update already built in, and improvements were made in Windows 2000 and Windows Me, such as personalized menus, ability to drag and sort menu items, sort by name function in menus, cascading Start menu special folders, customizable toolbars for Explorer, auto-complete in Windows Explorer address bar and Run box, displaying comments in file shortcuts as tooltips, advanced file type association features, extensible columns in Details view (IColumnProvider interface), icon overlays, places bar in common dialogs, high-color notification area icons and a search pane in Explorer.

Start menu and taskbar improvements

Windows XP introduced a new Start Menu, with shortcuts to shell locations on the right and a list of most frequently used applications on the left. It also grouped taskbar buttons from the same program if the taskbar got too crowded, and hid notification icons if they had not been used for a while. For the first time, Windows XP hid most of the shell folders from the desktop by default, leaving only the recycle bin (although the user could get them back if they desired). Windows XP also introduced numerous other shell enhancements.

In the early days of the Longhorn project, an experimental sidebar, with plugins similar to taskbar plugins and a notifications history was built into the shell. However, when Longhorn was reset this was ditched in favor of a separate program (Windows Sidebar) that provided Web-enabled gadgets, replacing Active Desktop.

Windows Vista introduced to the shell a searchable Start menu and live taskbar previews. It also introduced a redesigned Alt-Tab switcher, also with live previews. Windows 7 added 'pinned' shortcuts and 'jump lists' to the taskbar, and automatically grouped program windows into one icon (although this could be reversed). The Windows 7 shell also re-absorbed the responsibility of rendering gadgets.

Windows Server 2008 introduced the possibility to have a Windows install without the shell, resulting in fewer services loaded and running.[12][13]

Shell replacements

Windows supports the ability to replace the Windows shell with another program.[14] There also exists a number of third party shells designed to be used in place of the standard Windows shell.

See also


  1. ^ "Keyboard shortcuts - Windows 8, Windows RT". Windows 8, RT Help.  
  2. ^ Thurrot, Paul (26 June 2013). "Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Power User Menu". Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows.  
  3. ^ "Get to know Windows RT". Microsoft Surface support. Microsoft. Retrieved 4 January 2013. 
  4. ^ "The charms: Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings". Windows 8 portal. Microsoft. Retrieved 4 January 2013. 
  5. ^ "Overview". Windows 8 portal. Microsoft. Retrieved 4 January 2013. 
  6. ^ Phil Lemmons (December 1983). "Microsoft Windows: A Mouse With Modest Requirements".  
  7. ^ "New Features in Windows 3.1".  
  8. ^  
  9. ^  
  10. ^ Jon Gordon (December 24, 2008). "Why Google Loves Chrome: Netscape Constellation". Retrieved 2011-05-07. 
  11. ^ Tim Anderson (April 4, 2010). "Jewels from the loft: launch of Delphi, Netscape’s Constellation, HTML to die, Longhorn for developers". Retrieved 2011-05-07. 
  12. ^ "What Is Server Core?". Retrieved 30 October 2011. 
  13. ^ "Understanding Windows Server 2008 Server Core". 
  14. ^ "Different Shells for Different Users". Retrieved 18 March 2013. 

External links

  • "Windows Shell". Windows Development Reference.  
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