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Windows Confidential: The Third Rail of Keyboard Shortcuts

Raymond Chen

In Windows 95, Microsoft introduced the Windows+E hotkey. You could use this keystroke combination to open My Computer. That’s what it has done ever since, though not because people haven’t been tempted to change its function. Every so often, someone tries to change what the Windows+E hotkey does based on user research. That degree of change is always met with strong resistance from the old-timers.

For example, during one of the beta cycles, developers changed the function so the Windows+E hotkey opened your user files. That’s the same folder that opens when you click your name on the Windows Vista Start menu. I’m guessing the idea was that typical users spend time manipulating their files, not messing around with their hard drives.  

A few months later, the target of the Windows+E hotkey in an internal build of Windows changed again so that it opened your Libraries, the same folder you get if you click on the word Libraries in the Windows 7 navigation bar. For one thing, the old behavior of opening the user files folder was redundant. For another thing, research data showed that when people opened My Computer, most of the time they just started clicking through their drives and folders looking for their stuff. In other words, it was the first step in what promised to be a long and painful journey.

Libraries provide an easier way to find your stuff, since they aggregate your documents into one place rather than making you hunt all over for them. Sending users to Libraries told them, “Hey, there’s an easier way to do this. Let me help you find what you’re looking for.”

Fast-forward another few months and the target of the Explorer window that opens when you press the Windows+E key returned to opening My Computer. The request to change it back came from a programmer who worked with removable storage devices and file system filters—that sort of low-level stuff. He relied heavily on the old Windows+E hotkey opening My Computer so he could check on the status of the hard drives in his system to see if his driver was working correctly.

OK, it didn’t change back just because of a low-level driver developer’s feedback, but that triggered a re-evaluation of the hotkey. I think what may have finally tipped the balance back to having Windows+E send you to My Computer is all the help content and step-by-step instructions on the Internet and in printed materials that tell users to type Windows+E to open My Computer.

Long Road to Nowhere

It was a long journey that resulted in a net change of nothing, but we learned a lot along the way. For one thing, it shows that even though people complain that Windows is stale and never tries anything new, when you actually do something new—even if that new way is backed by research that demonstrates it’s an improvement for the majority of users—people will tell you to change it back to the old comfortable way.

The Windows Explorer shortcut on the Start menu is not as heavily encumbered. In Windows 95, it opened the root of your C: drive. In Windows 2000, it changed to opening your My Documents folder (later named simply Documents). In Windows 7, the destination folder changed yet again, this time to your Libraries folder.

Here’s a deployment tip: You can create a shortcut that opens an Explorer window on a folder of your choosing by simply creating a shortcut to that folder. You can give the shortcut a name of your choosing and deploy it to your users. If you’re really sneaky, you can even call that shortcut Windows Explorer.

Raymond Chen’s* Web site,* The Old New Thing, and his book of the same title (Addison-Wesley, 2007), deal with Windows history, Win32 programming and microvwave popcorn.