Launching Applications (ShellExecute, ShellExecuteEx, SHELLEXECUTEINFO)

Once your application has located a file object, the next step is often to act on it in some way. For instance, your application might want to launch another application that allows the user to modify a data file. If the file of interest is an executable, your application might want to simply launch it. This document discusses how to use ShellExecute or ShellExecuteEx to perform these tasks.

Using ShellExecute and ShellExecuteEx

To use ShellExecute or ShellExecuteEx, your application must specify the file or folder object that is to be acted on, and a verb that specifies the operation. For ShellExecute, assign these values to the appropriate parameters. For ShellExecuteEx, fill in the appropriate members of a SHELLEXECUTEINFO structure. There are also several other members or parameters that can be used to fine-tune the behavior of the two functions.

File and folder objects can be part of the file system or virtual objects, and they can be identified by either paths or pointers to item identifier lists (PIDLs).

Object Verbs

The verbs available for an object are essentially the items that you find on an object's shortcut menu. To find which verbs are available, look in the registry under


where object_clsid is the class identifier (CLSID) of the object, and verb is the name of the available verb. The verb\command subkey contains the data indicating what happens when that verb is invoked.

To find out which verbs are available for predefined Shell objects, look in the registry under


where object_name is the name of the predefined Shell object. Again, the verb\command subkey contains the data indicating what happens when that verb is invoked.

Commonly available verbs include:

Verb Description
edit Launches an editor and opens the document for editing.
find Initiates a search starting from the specified directory.
open Launches an application. If this file is not an executable file, its associated application is launched.
print Prints the document file.
properties Displays the object's properties.
runas Launches an application as Administrator. User Account Control (UAC) will prompt the user for consent to run the application elevated or enter the credentials of an administrator account used to run the application.

Each verb corresponds to the command that would be used to launch the application from a console window. The open verb is a good example, as it is commonly supported. For .exe files, open simply launches the application. However, it is more commonly used to launch an application that operates on a particular file. For instance, .txt files can be opened by Microsoft WordPad. The open verb for a .txt file would thus correspond to something like the following command:

"C:\Program Files\Windows NT\Accessories\Wordpad.exe" "%1"

When you use ShellExecute or ShellExecuteEx to open a .txt file, Wordpad.exe is launched with the specified file as its argument. Some commands can have additional arguments, such as flags, that can be added as needed to launch the application properly. For further discussion of shortcut menus and verbs, see Extending Shortcut Menus.

In general, trying to determine the list of available verbs for a particular file is somewhat complicated. In many cases, you can simply set the lpVerb parameter to NULL, which invokes the default command for the file type. This procedure is usually equivalent to setting lpVerb to "open", but some file types may have a different default command. For further information, see Extending Shortcut Menus and the ShellExecuteEx reference documentation.

Using ShellExecuteEx to Provide Activation Services from a Site

A site chain's services can control many behaviors of item activation. As of Windows 8, you can provide a pointer to the site chain to ShellExecuteEx to enable these behaviors. To provide the site to ShellExecuteEx:

Using ShellExecute to Launch the Search Dialog Box

When a user right-clicks a folder icon in Windows Explorer, one of the menu items is "Search". If they select that item, the Shell launches its Search utility. This utility displays a dialog box that can be used to search files for a specified text string. An application can programmatically launch the Search utility for a directory by calling ShellExecute, with "find" as the lpVerb parameter, and the directory path as the lpFile parameter. For instance, the following line of code launches the Search utility for the c:\MyPrograms directory.

ShellExecute(hwnd, "find", "c:\\MyPrograms", NULL, NULL, 0);

A Simple Example of How to Use ShellExecuteEx

The following sample console application illustrates the use of ShellExecuteEx. Most error checking code has been omitted for clarity.

#include <shlobj.h>
#include <shlwapi.h>
#include <objbase.h>

    LPITEMIDLIST pidlWinFiles = NULL;
    LPITEMIDLIST pidlItems = NULL;
    IShellFolder *psfWinFiles = NULL;
    IShellFolder *psfDeskTop = NULL;
    STRRET strDispName;
    TCHAR pszParseName[MAX_PATH];
    ULONG celtFetched;
    HRESULT hr;
    BOOL fBitmap = FALSE;

    hr = SHGetFolderLocation(NULL, CSIDL_WINDOWS, NULL, NULL, &pidlWinFiles);

    hr = SHGetDesktopFolder(&psfDeskTop);

    hr = psfDeskTop->BindToObject(pidlWinFiles, NULL, IID_IShellFolder, (LPVOID *) &psfWinFiles);
    hr = psfDeskTop->Release();

    hr = psfWinFiles->EnumObjects(NULL,SHCONTF_FOLDERS | SHCONTF_NONFOLDERS, &ppenum);

    while( hr = ppenum->Next(1,&pidlItems, &celtFetched) == S_OK && (celtFetched) == 1)
        psfWinFiles->GetDisplayNameOf(pidlItems, SHGDN_FORPARSING, &strDispName);
        StrRetToBuf(&strDispName, pidlItems, pszParseName, MAX_PATH);
        if(StrCmpI(PathFindExtension(pszParseName), TEXT( ".bmp")) == 0)
            fBitmap = TRUE;


        ShExecInfo.cbSize = sizeof(SHELLEXECUTEINFO);
        ShExecInfo.fMask = NULL;
        ShExecInfo.hwnd = NULL;
        ShExecInfo.lpVerb = NULL;
        ShExecInfo.lpFile = pszParseName;
        ShExecInfo.lpParameters = NULL;
        ShExecInfo.lpDirectory = NULL;
        ShExecInfo.nShow = SW_MAXIMIZE;
        ShExecInfo.hInstApp = NULL;



    return 0;

The application first retrieves the PIDL of the Windows directory, and enumerates its contents until it finds the first .bmp file. Unlike the earlier example, IShellFolder::GetDisplayNameOf is used to retrieve the file's parsing name instead of its display name. Because this is a file system folder, the parsing name is a fully qualified path, which is what is needed for ShellExecuteEx.

Once the first .bmp file has been located, appropriate values are assigned to the members of a SHELLEXECUTEINFO structure. The lpFile member is set to the parsing name of the file, and the lpVerb member to NULL, to begin the default operation. In this case, the default operation is "open". The structure is then passed to ShellExecuteEx, which launches the default handler for bitmap files, typically MSPaint.exe, to open the file. After the function returns, the PIDLs are freed and the Windows folder's IShellFolder interface is released.