Windows Confidential: Leftovers from Windows 3.0

Some leftover interface elements dating back to the days of Windows 3.0 let you remove and hide icons in several different ways.

Raymond Chen

“If I double-click on the desktop when I’ve removed all icons from it by policy, why does that launch Task Manager? What’s going on?”

This is sort of like removing the paneling from the basement of an old house and discovering a hidden storage compartment covered over by an old wall. This actually happened to a colleague of mine. Inside the storage compartment were a number of historical objects, including an alcohol ration card from World War II that didn’t have all its holes punched. Whoever misplaced that ration card must have been quite upset.

Windows 3.0 had the Program Manager as a program launcher, but Program Manager was not a task switcher. If you wanted to see a list of the open windows on your desktop so you could switch to another, you had to double-click on a blank space on your desktop or pressed Ctrl+Esc. Then Task Manager would start up.

Task Manager also gave you the option to end a program or rearrange the windows (such as cascading them). It was the only task-switching opportunity that showed you more than one window at a time. As we discussed in March 2009, the Alt+Tab interface from this era did not display a list of windows from which to choose, but rather switched you from window to window directly.

Windows 95 introduced the taskbar as a list of open windows, as well as selecting the one to which you wanted to switch. Task Manager was no longer necessary for switching. While in Windows 3.0, icons on the desktop represented minimized windows, in Windows 95, the desktop acted as an icon container.

The Windows 95 desktop was actually a window created by Explorer that covered your screen (but sat beneath all the other windows on your desktop). That was the window that displayed your icons. There was still a window manager desktop window beneath that (the window you get if you call Get­Desktop­Window), but you never saw it because it was covered by the Windows 95 desktop—the same way that the wood paneling in the basement of my colleague’s house covered the original wall and the time capsule behind the wall.

Changes Come Slowly

This Windows 95 interface was such a change from the old Windows 3.1, that the product designers left an escape hatch in place. They left a copy of Program Manager in Windows 95 so people who really didn’t like the new interface could switch back to the old one with its program groups and the ability to double-click to open Task Manager. As it turns out, the new interface was such a hit that the escape hatch wasn’t necessary. It was just nice to know it was there as a backup plan.

This desktop design has remained largely unchanged since its introduction in Windows 95. On a typical machine, the original desktop is still there, but it’s completely covered by the Explorer desktop.

If you apply the “Hide and disable all items on the desktop” policy, this removes the Explorer desktop window, leaving the original desktop window to show through. On the original desktop, double-clicking a blank space launches Task Manager, because that’s what it has always done. You removed the fancy Explorer paneling and exposed the original basement wall, complete with its long-forgotten storage.

If you’d rather not expose the original desktop and its double-click behavior, but still don’t want to show any icons, you can go about it another way. This will leave the Explorer desktop on the screen, but it will be empty. Use other Group Policies such as “Remove Recycle Bin icon from desktop” to remove all the standard icons.

On top of that, apply access control lists to the desktop folder so users can’t create files there either. Do the same to the shared desktop folder. These steps remove the icons, but leave the Explorer desktop window in place. It will still cover the original desktop and block access to its hidden compartments.

Raymond Chen

Raymond Chen's* Web site, The Old New Thing, and identically titled book (Addison-Wesley, 2007) deals with Windows history, Win32 programming and the illusory repair powers of black electrical tape.*