Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Directory by Any Other Name

What's in a name? Many people have said that the "Program Files" directory introduced in Windows® 95 should really be named "Programs." But programs and program files are different. Users like programs. Programs do things. If you have a list of programs, you can browse through and choose which program you want to use. Programs are fun to play with.

Program files, on the other hand, are scary. These are the nuts and bolts that make the computer go: data files, DLLs, configuration files, helper processes, and other things that users shouldn't be messing with.

This distinction was preserved in the user interface. Programs appeared on the Start menu. This offered a friendly, inviting place where you could see all the programs on your computer and choose one to run. Program files, on the other hand, were squirreled away in a directory with a scary name that discouraged exploration. A directory named Programs would be an attractive nuisance. A user who wanted to run a program might open My Computer, see a directory named Programs, and wander into it, unwittingly entering a frightening world of DLLs and executables with baffling names. If this user were lucky, she might discover that this thing called WinWord.exe launches Microsoft® Word. She might even conclude that, in order to run Word, she needs to open My Computer, click her C drive, click Programs, go into the Microsoft Office directory, then to Office11, and then in the list of 200 files (all of which have nonsense names) find the file called WinWord.exe and double-click it. This is so complicated. Why can't Microsoft make a computer that's easy to use?

The Documents and Settings directory arrived on the scene in Windows 2000. Windows NT® kept user profiles in a subdirectory of the Windows directory. This turned out to be poor planning, because it made it difficult to adjust the access control list (ACL) on the Windows directory without accidentally messing up all the user profiles. Moving the user profiles out of the Windows directory solved that problem.

But why "Documents and Settings"? The original name for the directory was actually "Documents & Settings". That ampersand caused a good deal of application compatibility problems. Programs misinterpreted the ampersand as a menu accelerator and ended up displaying the directory name as "Documents _Settings".

Read more: MSDN Blog