Why do some people call the taskbar the "tray"?


Short answer: Because they're wrong.

Long answer:

The official name for the thingie at the bottom of the screen is the "taskbar". The taskbar contains a variety of elements, such as the "Start Button", a collection of "taskbar buttons", the clock, and the "Taskbar Notification Area".

One of the most common errors is to refer to the Taskbar Notification Area as the "tray" or the "system tray". This has never been correct. If you find any documentation that refers to it as the "tray" then you found a bug.

In early builds of Windows 95, the taskbar originally wasn't a taskbar; it was a folder window docked at the bottom of the screen that you could drag/drop things into/out of, sort of like the organizer tray in the top drawer of you desk. That's where the name "tray" came from. (Some might argue that this was taking the desktop metaphor a bit too far.)

Artist's conception (i.e., Raymond sat down with Paint and tried to reconstruct it from memory) of what the tray looked like at this time:

The tray could be docked to any edge of the screen or it could be undocked and treated like any other window.

Then we ditched the tray and replaced it with the taskbar. We went through a doc scrub to change all occurrences of "tray" to "taskbar". If you go through the shell documentation, you should not find the word "tray" anywhere.

A little while later, we added notification icons to the taskbar.

I think the reason people started calling it the "system tray" is that on Win95 there was a program called "systray.exe" that displayed some icons in the notification area: volume control, PCMCIA (as it was then called) status, battery meter. If you killed systray.exe, you lost those notification icons. So people thought, "Ah, systray must be the component that manages those icons, and I bet its name is 'system tray'." Thus began the misconception that we have been trying to eradicate for over eight years...

Even worse, other groups (not the shell) picked up on this misnomer and started referring it to the tray in their own documentation and samples, some of which even erroneously claim that "system tray" is the official name of the notification area.

"But why do you care? That's what everybody calls it now, may as well go with the flow."

How would you like it if everybody started calling you by the wrong name?

Summary: It is never correct to refer to the notification area as the tray. It has always been called the "notification area".

Comments (73)
  1. This is news to me. I have always (since I first started working with Win95) referred to it as the System Tray. In fact, I dont think I can recall anyone i know having referred to it as anything other than the system tray.

    The system Tray name makes sense though. But I can understand the renaming frustration. At <a href="www.palmteq.com">the company I work for</a> our clients always refer to our wireless ordering handhelds as PalmTEQs (the name of our company), not the actual product name WaiterPad. It is incredibly frustrating! (not to mention at times confusing)

  2. Ryan Eibling says:

    You touched on something that has bothered me for years when you referred to the taskbar as "that thingie at the bottom of the screen". The taskbar can be docked to any edge of the screen and I HATE it when applications assume that it’s at the bottom and position themselves accordingly. I dock mine at the top and I’ve often wondered why it was placed at the bottom by default. Almost all applications have their menus and toolbars at the top, and when I’m working on something or reading I usually scroll so that the working area is in the middle or the upper half of the screen. Also, menus in applications are almost always pull-down, not pull-up as in the bottom-docked taskbar. So given all of that, why would I want to drag my cursor clear down to the bottom of the screen to switch applications or access the Start menu? Was the bottom-docked taskbar decision simply about being different from Mac OS? That’s all I can think of.

  3. MartinJ says:

    I think the reason for putting the task bar at the bottom instead of the top was to put a bit of distance between an application menu/toolbar area and the system’s stuff. That way, you don’t accidentally switch to another app when you meant to click a toolbar button.

  4. DavidK says:

    But "System Tray" or "SysTray" is so much easier to say and type than "Notification Area." NotArea? Sounds like a horrible gastrointestinal disease ;)

  5. Ryan Eibling says:

    Doesn’t the application’s title bar create enough distance from the taskbar? I’ve had my taskbar at the top for years and never accidentally clicked on it.

  6. Andreas Häber says:

    Ryan: I totally agree with you. I’ve got a dual-monitor setup on my main workstation, so therefore I prefer to have it on the left edge.

    With this setup I see a lot of UI bugs in programs when they assume that 1) I only have one monitor and 2) My taskbar is at the bottom of that monitor.

  7. AlisdairM says:

    Andreas/Ryan:
    How many ‘me too’ posts do we need before more app developers take notice? [Other than those of us reading here ;¬ )]

    My taskbar has moved around over the years, although I never found the top comfortable. Too close the application menu as already pointed out. Currently it sits at the right-hand side of my second monitor.

    Of course, if you want to see real application confusion, my current setup has my primary monitor in portait mode, my secondary in landscape, and the task bar on the secondary. You soon learn never to hit the ‘maximize’ button again…

  8. Mike Dunn says:

    hmm… let me get out my trusty Spy++ and see what I can find…

    One of the windows in the taskbar has class "Shell_TrayWnd"
    The tray^H^H^H^Hnotification area has class "TrayNotifyWnd"
    The clock window has class "TrayClockWClass"

    All holdovers in the name of backward-compatibility with the original "real" tray from 9 years ago? ;)

  9. Mal Ross says:

    I would never have my taskbar docked anywhere other than the bottom of the screen. It makes it really easy to close a window with right-click, left-click (or vice versa for southpaws). Surely THAT is why it’s the default, not some Apple phobia madness?

  10. Ian Hanschen says:

    I have quite a bit of code for shimming the..notification area and feeding the data to our various apps. All of the classes have ‘Tray’ in the name. Oops.

  11. milk says:

    yes, there are benefits for power users by having the taskbar at the top of the screen (i.e., having most major gui items on the screen within a ~50px vertical range), but as the register notes [ http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/67/32742.html ], newbie users can easily be confused by computer systems, and having all the major items on a screen bunched up close together might throw some.

  12. Ian Hanschen says:

    Though that does explain where "Shell_TrayWnd" comes from..

  13. Anonymous says:

    The way dictionaries work is that when there is enough general use of a term that was previously considered wrong, it becomes adopted by the dictionary. I think the system tray is one such case where Microsoft should just give up and call it the name everyone knows it by.

    Somehow this reminds me of the use of the ellipsis in user interfaces. Any UI design guide will tell you that the "…" should be applied to menu items when more information is required before the command is executed, not just when a dialog box is displayed. However it seems that only a small minority of developers, let alone users, actually understand this subtlety. Perhaps it is time to give up this idea that clearly doesn’t work in practice, and replace it with something more intuitive.

  14. Ray, why are you dissin’ the Fox docs? They don’t say what you said they said.

  15. Blake says:

    I remember the original OLE2/newshell design documents that referred to the Tray. The biggest reason for the Tray as I recall was that the UI was going to natively support switching between desktops, and the Tray was the one bit that would stay constant between them, therefore to move something from one desktop to another you would drop something in the tray, switch to the other desktop, and drag it back out. This even predated Windows 4, aka Win95 as I recall. Of course, multiple desktop support only exists in the NT based family and even then it’s sadly neglected. Not that I could live without the little winkey.exe/desk.exe tools I wrote back in the NT 3.x days.

  16. Raymond Chen says:

    Okay maybe I picked the wrong Fox doc. Though "commonly referred to as" doesn’t emphasize that the name is unauthorized.

    If you insist on using the word "Tray" you should at least use it properly. It refers to the entire taskbar, not just the notification area. (Notice that the window whose class name is "TrayWnd" – which can’t change for compatibility reasons – refers is the taskbar. The notification area is TrayNotifyWnd.)

    I’ll talk about the history of the taskbar (position, appearance, etc) in a future entry.

  17. "I’ll talk about the history of the taskbar (position, appearance, etc) in a future entry."

    Looking forward to it! :-)

  18. Face it, Raymond, you lost this one years ago. :-)

    Everyone calls the "notification area" the tray, or the system tray. Everyone calls the icons that show up there "tray icons".

    Nobody calls the entire taskbar the tray. Nobody calls the tray the notification area. Ain’t gonna happen.

    It’s just like the friendly competition who makes those handheld devices. You know what everyone–*everyone*–calls them? PalmPilots. My six-year-old calls it a PalmPilot. Doesn’t matter what Palm, Inc. or the Pilot Pen company would like–they’re PalmPilots, and always will be.

    It makes no difference what terminology is "authorized". The People Have Spoken. :-)

  19. Scott Evans says:

    Mr. Geary nailed it… "notification area" is goofy. "Taskbar" and "tray" (and "tray icons" within it) is all I’ve heard for years. And I like ’em.

  20. Kevin Schaffer says:

    When you can’t even get the people in Microsoft to use your term, how can you expect everyone else to?

  21. OTOH, I can understand Raymond’s frustration. If I had a dollar for every time someone called me "Gary"… :-)

  22. James Lin says:

    Regarding the taskbar on top vs. bottom debate: there are usability reasons to put the taskbar on the bottom, too. It keeps the minimize/maximize/close buttons along the top edge, which is an infinitely large target in one dimension. Few applications have buttons on the bottom, so if you move the taskbar to the top, you’ve totally wasted your bottom edge.

    As for the "notification area" thing… there are quite a number of applications that put icons there that don’t notify me of a darned thing. When was the last time the volume applet notified me of something? Never. Its primary purpose is to provide the user with the means to quickly adjust the volume, not to indicate whether the volume is muted.

    Speaking of the volume applet, the Sounds/Multimedia applet (in Windows 2000) has a checkbox that says "Show volume control on the taskbar". That’s right: "taskbar", not "system tray", not "notification area", and that’s just wrong.

  23. some says:

    WinXP ;)
    Help -> search "tray"
    "…On computers running Windows 98 and Windows Millennium Edition, an icon appears in the Communications program group and in the system tray…."

  24. Cavaradossi says:

    http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;310578&FR=1&PA=1&SD=HSCH

    "Windows System Tray Icons"

    http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;308674&FR=1&PA=1&SD=HSCH

    "System Tray Does Not Have a Speaker Icon:

    SYMPTOMS
    After you uninstall your sound device in Device Manager, the speaker icon may not re-appear in the system tray (the area on the right side of the taskbar) when the sound device is re-enumerated.
    CAUSE
    This issue can occur if the system tray does not properly refresh. "

    We call it the system tray. Microsoft calls it the system tray. I think, Raymond, that you might just have to entertain the possibility that it’s called the system tray.

  25. Ryan Eibling says:

    Since those are support articles that’s a pretty good place to surrender to the popular misnomer. I would think you’d want to index information in a way that people will find it and explain it in a way that they will understand it, not enforce your official naming conventions.

    And there’s my pet peeve again: "the system tray (the area on the right side of the taskbar)". I’ve tried it on the left, too, where it’s the area at the bottom of the taskbar.

  26. Paul Gunn says:

    I don’t understand the obsession with ‘official names’. The purpose of a name is to communicate – the widescale use of an alternitive name shows that ‘notification area’ wasn’t cutting it.

    I sure hope the "How would you like it if everybody started calling you by the wrong name? " comment was tongue in cheek. We are talking about a piece of software, not a human being. The difference should be clear.

    The real problem as I see it is when developers get too attached to pet names or other artifacts and become resistant to change.

  27. Ian Hanschen says:

    You guys are seriously flogging a dead horse. Raymond probably brought this up because it involved a lot of his own work and planning. Naming a piece of software is like naming anything else – you grow attached to it and find a good name for it. And I’m guessing it’s the precursor to an article on the abuse of the notification area. PotatO, POtato, TomatO, TOmato.

  28. I was looking at screenshots of Longhorn build 4029 on Paul Thurrott’s SuperSite for Windows, and I noticed in the sidebar there is an item called "Classic Tray".

    http://www.winsupersite.com/showcase/longhorn_4029.asp

  29. The only reason not to have the start bar at the top of the screen is it makes it very close to the title bar of a lot of apps and thus there X (close) buttons.

    Just imagine all those receptionists and accounts dept people who have mice with dirty balls and rollers that skip and jump all day complaining that every time they try to switch to excel there accounts package closes?

    Much safer on the bottom for the less computer savvy.

  30. Doug L. says:

    Another Summary: It is rarely productive to attempt to influence usage by replacing a common one-syllable term ("tray") with an extremely awkward eight-syllable phrase.

  31. Although what Ian Hanschen said is true – that you grow attached to the software you write – it does not mean that the name you chose for your software is the best name. Just think if the Windows name had not been changed from Interface Manager? Some names are simply better than others. System Tray is much more aesthetically pleasing than Notification Area. One sounds needlessly technical, and the other brings it down to Earth. Consider that the majority of the Windows audience is the common non-technical user, this is a good thing.

  32. Ray Trent says:

    A quick search in the MSDN library for "tray near icon" shows 97 hits. Almost all of them refer to the notification area.

    What’s my prize?

  33. AlisdairM says:

    The problem is that ‘notification area’ is a description, not a name. System Tray tells you next to nothing about what it does, but trips off the tongue. A name.
    I sometimes think software authors should never be allowed to name things in the public interface. To write good software we need accurate, descriptive names for all our variables and functions. IThere is more than enough research that these also make very poor product names ;¬ )

  34. Dave says:

    Damn! This rant opened my eyes a bit… all this time I was call that can of soda "Coke", not "Pepsi". You’d have thunk the blue color of the thing would’ve tipped me off.

    How many people order a "Coke" at BK or Wendys? And how many counter workers correct them when they do?

    While this was an interesting piece of trivia, the truth is if you want to communicate clearly to the largest group of people, do like MS itself does: call it the ‘tray (contraction intended since as long as you put that syllable in it you used the common piece of verbage needed).

  35. Dave says:

    Damn! This rant opened my eyes a bit… all this time I was call that can of soda "Coke", not "Pepsi". You’d have thunk the blue color of the thing would’ve tipped me off.

    How many people order a "Coke" at BK or Wendys? And how many counter workers correct them when they do?

    While this was an interesting piece of trivia, the truth is if you want to communicate clearly to the largest group of people, do like MS itself does: call it the ‘tray (contraction intended since as long as you put that syllable in it you used the common piece of verbage needed).

  36. Anonymous says:

    "How many people order a "Coke" at BK or Wendys? And how many counter workers correct them when they do?"

    Not sure what the answer to your rhetorical question is, I guess it changes depending on where you live <g>
    In UK ordering a ‘coke’ when some other brand of Cola is involved will almost always get you corrected, thanks to various ‘frivalous’ lawsuits. Not sure if the suits are urban myth, but I know I am almost always corrected for ordering ‘coke’, and no-one has served me with white powder yet ;¬ )

  37. Luci Sandor says:

    The clases and the systray program also got their names from some "wrong" MS coders.
    You should let them know first.

  38. quanta says:

    I just wanted to point out that so many TSR-type apps now stick themselves in the "notification area", it has become a misnomer. E.g., Winamp doesn’t notify you on anything. It’s there instead of the taskbar because people want to conserve taskbar real estate.

    Dave: I think ‘coke’ is more of a regional phenomenon in the US. Sometimes it becomes a synonym for "soda" or "pop". I’ve heard that people even ask for "Sprite coke".

  39. Dragan says:

    I’ve seen quite a few authorities who insisted that it’s not a neck, it’s a throat. Communists were the best at it; at some point it was wrong to say "teacher", as the only PC term was "lecturer of class curriculum".
    Microsoft comes really close. Fifteen years ago, when I mentioned "folder" anywhere, I had to endure a long harangue about it being called directory, because it was always called directory, and will always be called directory, and it will never ever be called a folder… which usually ended with where can I stick my Atari. Need I say there’s still a "DIR" command in cmd.exe? And no "FOLD" command, of course.

  40. Esther Fan says:

    We’ve renamed the sample in the documentation for the next release. The class name will remain, but the sample description will have the following text:

    Taskbar Icon Sample
    This sample demonstrates some common uses of the Systray class. This class supports using icons in the Taskbar Notification Area. The Systray class also supports mouse events, balloon tips, and Visual FoxPro shortcut menus for your taskbar icon so you can use all the features of the Visual FoxPro Menu Designer.

    Thanks!

  41. mickey says:

    i want to put the taskbar at bottom of screen

  42. Scott says:

    Michael’s comment regarding handheld’s was spot on. I’ve had one since I picked up the original 256k Palm Pilot when it first came out. I’ve now been through several generations and brands, culiminating with my current Sony Clié, and I still refer to them as my "Palm Pilot," no matter what Palm, Sony, or anyone else calls them. Oddly enough, that doesn’t appear to lead to any difficulty of understanding.

    Quanta mentioned the soda/coke/pop issue. It does, indeed, seem to be a regional thing, at least in the States. I’ve lived in several different regions, and one or another of those three terms seems to predominate in any given area, though not always exclusively. In the SE, coke tends to predominate, while here in Cincinnati I’ve heard both pop and soda, with pop having a slight edge. Different strokes…

  43. Raymond Chen says:

    Commenting on this article has been closed.

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