Windows Confidential: The Policy That Controls Nothing

If you were wondering what feature advertisement balloon notifications were, and what you should do with them, read on.

Raymond Chen

If you’re one of those IT guys who carefully studies each and every Group Policy setting, then you may have discovered this one added in Windows 7: Turn off feature advertisement balloon notifications.

If you enable this setting, Windows won’t display certain notification balloons that are marked as feature advertisements. If you disable this setting or don’t configure it at all, you’ll see feature advertisement balloons. The next logical question, then, is: “What is a feature advertisement balloon?”

Pop Up and Be Counted

In the corporate world, there are many users who still call the company help desk when anything unusual pops up on the screen. After all, the computer said something, they didn't understand it and they want to make sure they do the right thing. Because, as everybody knows, if you do the slightest thing wrong with a computer, red lights start flashing and all your data gets deleted.

That being the case, most organizations have a vested interest in reducing the number of notifications. One source of safely ignorable notifications is the “Hey, have you tried feature X?” balloon, the most hated of which is the Windows XP “There are unused icons on your desktop.” There are others as well, like the “Hey, you have a tablet. Would you like to customize your flick gestures?”

By the way, you can disable the unused icons balloon from the Control Panel. Go to your Display properties, click the Desktop tab, then click on Customize Desktop. Uncheck Run Desktop Cleanup Wizard every 60 days. To disable it by policy, enable the Remove the Desktop Cleanup Wizard policy under the Desktop node. You’ll be relieved to know that the Desktop Cleanup Wizard is completely gone in Windows Vista and beyond.

Cleanup Crew

So why was the Desktop Cleanup Wizard created in the first place? User research showed many users have a desktop cluttered with icons that they didn’t create. Most were installed with the computer by the manufacturer. They don’t realize they can delete them, or think that if they do delete them, they’re afraid something might stop working.

The Desktop Cleanup Wizard was an attempt to let people know, “It’s okay to delete them. In fact, in case you change your mind, I’ll save them for you.” You may think no one is so naïve to think that an icon on the desktop isn’t safe to delete. Then again, it also took us 10 years before we felt confident enough in our users that we could remove the word Start from the Start button.

Anyway, back to our story about feature advertisement balloon notifications. The tablet folks suggested that the shell team implement a way to flag a balloon notification to indicate “This isn’t actually telling you anything important. It’s just offering to introduce you to a feature you may not know about.” That way, IT professionals can control them via policy as a group.

The shell team accepted the request. They developed a mechanism by which those other OS components can indicate that their balloon should be subject to this new “Turn off feature advertisement balloon notifications” policy. They also created the policy, documented it and had it added to the Group Policy Editor.

Unfortunately, it turned into a case of “They built it and nobody came.” Although the request for this particular policy came from the tablet folks, the ball was somehow dropped and the other half never showed up.

The tablet folks never got around to tagging their balloon as a feature advertisement balloon. And Windows 7 ended up shipping with a Group Policy that controls nothing.

Raymond Chen

Raymond Chen*'s* Web site, The Old New Thing, and identically-titled book (Addison-Wesley, 2007) deal with Windows history, Win32 programming and cute names for unborn babies.