Here's a cheer for Microsoft's Windows Explorer design team.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

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Windows Explorer? It's not Internet Explorer, despite the similar name

Nov. 2, 2006

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, The Post-Standard

   Windows Explorer is one of those programs that doesn't really need a name. It's always running and you're always looking at it. It's right in front of your face.
   Internet Explorer is one of those programs that you'd like to forget about. It's dangerous and so badly designed that it could easily win an award for the worst program ever given out free with Windows.
   Two pieces of software that do vastly different tasks, and two confusingly similar names. If you need another reason to wonder what Microsoft is doing with all the money you and your neighbors pay for the right to run Windows, you could simply point to the inexcusable confusion over Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer. A company that knew what it was doing would not engender such ambiguity.
   Windows Explorer is the shell for Windows. The concept of a "shell" is very old in computer time. It's the software that gives you a way to interact with the operating system. Old-style shells used typed commands, but modern shells give you a way to click icons, open windows and drag stuff around.
   Windows Explorer is always running because the shell has to be running all the time. If the shell stops running, the operating system has to have a way to restart the shell; otherwise, the operating system itself would be unresponsive and uncontrollable.
   This "always-on" function is so handy and so necessary that we just take it for granted. We see icons on the desktop and double click on one of them to open a folder. That's just normal stuff in Windows. But what we actually see are objects placed on the desktop by the Windows shell -- by Windows Explorer -- and when we click on one of those objects, the shell interprets the click (or the double click) in an appropriate way and carries out the instructions that are programmed into the shell. We know that double clicking should open a folder, and the shell knows it, too.
   Microsoft chose a good name for Windows Explorer. It lets you explore the files and folders on your computer. It also lets you explore the files and folders on other computers you are connected to.
   But did you realize Windows Explorer also lets you explore the files and folders on ftp servers? Simply by typing an ftp address into the address line of Windows Explorer -- it's at the top of the Window, and normally shows the location of your view into the file system (you might have to turn that on in the options) -- you get an exploratory view of the files and folders on the ftp server.
   The two-pane layout of Windows Explorer has never been duplicated or improved on for its overall usability. On the left -- if you leave that "view" active -- is the folder structure. On the right is the contents of the folder you have selected on the left. It's easy to drag items from the left to the right -- from within one folder to another folder, for example. And you can easily see at a glance the basic layout of your files and folders.
   So here's a cheer for Microsoft's Windows Explorer design team. Maybe Microsoft could put the same folks on the security team as well.