Why don’t I get a Caps Lock warning balloon any more?

A customer asked for help diagnosing a problem they were experiencing on Windows XP:

My customer reports that on their machines, they do not get the warning balloon that appears when Caps Lock is set while you are typing into a password field. I searched for relevant KB articles but couldn't find anything related to that. Can you help?

Time for the psychic powers.

My psychic powers tell me that the customer disabled all balloon tips.

The customer liaison replied

You are right. Thanks for the help.

This is a not uncommon situation with some customers. They change a setting, and then later report that they're having some problem caused by that setting. They don't bother going to a freshly-installed machine to see whether the problem occurs there as well, in order to isolate whether the problem is related to their customizations or not. They just assume that their customizations couldn't possibly be the cause of the problem, and they are so convinced of this that they don't even mention "Oh, we customized this setting" when they ask for help.

By the way, the setting to disable all balloon tips in the entire system is a rogue feature. At the time that balloons were originally being developed (and the rules surrounding them being refined based on research and feedback), one developer was impatient with the progress toward making the balloons less annoying, and he just went in and added a rogue feature to disable them with a sledgehammer. And now that people know about it, the rogue feature has become a support burden.

Comments (32)
  1. Damien says:

    @Falcon – that can't be it, since they wouldn't know what the notification area is (they'd probably like to just disable them in the system tray) :-)

  2. SimonRev says:

    @Damien: +1 Funny

  3. Tim says:

    This reminds me of people who complain about websites not working when they're running browser extensions to disable scripts and embedded objects on web pages.

  4. Someone You Know says:

    What are the consequences to a Microsoft developer for putting in a "rogue feature" like this? Would this developer be disciplined in some way, or is this a par-for-the-course kind of thing?

  5. John says:

    Just because they don't provide information doesn't necessarily mean they are withholding it intentionally.  They probably disabled the balloons a while ago and just completely forgot about it.

    I find it odd that you mention rules for balloon use when it's been shown time and again that NOBODY follows the rules (including Microsoft).  I suppose it is cleaner to disable notifications on a per-application basis, but when given a sledgehammer is it hard to not swing it.

  6. Joshua says:

    @Someone You Know: It is no longer allowed but was at the time.

    Incidentally, I build a few such rogue features because they're handy for testing. They're not a support burden because they're worth more than they cost.

  7. Andrei says:

    Is the name of the impatient developer, by any chance, Raymond?

  8. Bob says:

    A support burden but a customer blessing. I hate those things, mostly because (right out of the gate) Microsoft itself annoyed me by repeatedly popping up so many of them for ridiculously nonsensical reasons.  I disabled them as soon as I discovered how and disabling them is still one of the first things I do… so I've been fortunate to never experience other apps abusing them.  If I had to put up with that I'd probably put on my Hulk mask and SMASH!

  9. SimonRev says:


    I agree to a point. The XP out-of-the-box nonstop barrage of notifications elicited the same visceral response in me as the time Clippy started tapping on my monitor glass (very nearly causing me to need to ask my boss for a new monitor).  

    However, some notifications are useful (such as the password caps lock one) as well as a number of app-specific ones.  I'm afraid that a sledgehammer is probably the wrong tool here.

  10. Should have been a tester says:

    The complaint about the customer forgetting to mention the customization isn't exactly fair. OK, I've got a windows box that's acting up. For some reason. I get a fresh install, and it works fine (of course). SO, we can conclude that either it's some setting I changed over the last couple of years OR it's something that's gone wrong inside windows. But we knew that when we started! Testing on a fresh install doesn't add any new knowledge.

    I've got dozens of wacko problems (mostly with Win7, BTW) and I've done as little customization as I possibly can (just enough to make it tolerable) – but only MS could possibly know where to look to understand these problems.

  11. SimonRev says:

    I will have to disagree @SimonRev,

    Have you tried watching someone's fingers as they type a password?  With training it can be done, but casually watching their fingers won't give you their password (assuming they are touch typing).  On the other hand, seeing a password in plain text is hard to miss and forget.

  12. jader3rd says:

    Windows does need a universal search for different settings. The whole show a dialog with a check box to disable, paradigm breaks down when someone wants to reenable the functionality and have no idea where to look to do so.

  13. NT says:

    I worked on a product at microsoft once that actually used the rogue "disable balloons" feature during setup, because we were highly focused on making the setup process smooth, and it involved installing a USB driver and 802.11b device.  Turns out that no matter how smooth and easy we made that setup process, the user could still get distracted by the balloon and click to go into the incomprehensible (to our users) driver installation wizard and/or the wireless network confuserator (this was way before any of the vista UI simplification for wireless config, and our setup walked you through that too).  So we disabled balloons via the secret regkey and then re-enabled it when we were done.  This, of course, also involved layers of failsafe checks to (mostly) ensure the balloons didn't end up permanently disabled if we never finished setup.  It was all pretty ugly.

  14. NT says:

    By the way, I think the user's disconnect here is that they didn't think the "stop annoying me with balloons I'm not interested in" checkbox was connected to the "helpfully remind me that my capslock is on when I'm typing a password" feature.  Balloons have been devalued by abuse.  Obviously, bayesian balloon spam filtering is needed.

  15. xpclient says:

    Why do people dislike balloon notifications? I find them the most non-intrusive type of notification. You don't even have to close them, you can configure their fade out time and they don't even play a sound any more in newer versions of Windows. Plus they look really neat popping up neatly at the corner of the screen in the notification area and fading away. For some stupid reason, certain XP balloon tips like IP address conflict or USB drive safe to remove were changed to message boxes in Vista. And Windows 7 does its best to quieten balloon tips and demote them to the overflow area by default.

  16. People hated Balloon Help in Mac OS, and the Office Assistant too.

    Well, some people liked them and some people were annoyed by the distraction.

    The obvious solution to the Caps Lock problem is to use a password without letters ;-)

  17. NT says:

    There's just something about them that seems almost designed to irritate.  Maybe it's the number of times I've dismissed them only to have another one immediately pop up in its place.  Maybe it's the number of times some dumb component wants to alert me of something irrelevant (yes, Media Center, I know you don't have a TV signal, because I haven't plugged anything into the tuner card in two years.  Please remind me again tomorrow), and maybe it's because I auto-hide my taskbar, which makes a balloon a lot less non-intrusive.

  18. Joshua says:

    I worked on a product at microsoft once that actually used the rogue "disable balloons" feature during setup,

    Now that's a good use of a global solution to solve a local problem.

  19. Klimax says:


    AFAIK since Vista search in Start will go through settings too. Or you can use search in Godmode…

  20. Marcel says:

    The discussion reminds me of the hilarious Daily-WTF Calculator Contest Entry "Universal Calculator". It helpfully showed balloons like "The operands have been multiplied!"…

  21. Falcon says:

    The linked KB article only mentions disabling *notification area* balloon tips – maybe this confused the customer, as they did not expect it to apply to items outside the notification area, such as password fields.

  22. Back to Raymond's point, I had a customer just this week where our software was going really slow when saving their scanned images.  I looked at the screen, saw they were using the B&W profile in our software and went hunting elsewhere (looking at SQL Server, etc).  Turns out the crucial bit of information I got the next day was that barcodes on our forms weren't being read well two weeks prior, so instead of calling us and having it solved in 5 minutes they called the scanner manufacturer who sent out a guy a few days later.  He went into our software and changed the profile called "B&W" to actually scan in greyscale – nice!

    I then get the call a while later about things being slow (old XP machine with 512MB of RAM trying to scan 60+ pages of greyscale and process those images for barcodes and other identifying features).  When I was told about the [scanner manufacturer] man and the barcode issue, which we'd seen at a dozen other clients I went into the TWAIN driver settings and disabled the "make my images look nice" mode since it's a well-known issue that the "improvement" is nice, except that it ruins barcodes (turns them into hollow rectangles).  5 minutes later they had a fast scanner and were reliably reading barcodes…

    Rant over :)  I can appreciate Raymond's frustration

  23. @SimonRev says:

    >> some notifications are useful (such as the password caps lock one)

    Really what would be useful would be have a non masked text box with a checkbox on the right to enable/disable the masking.

    Really I can't think of a frequent scenario (*) where a malicious person can look at what I write on the textbox and not simply watch the keys I press on the keyboard if he wants. But that adds a big burden everytime a password is typed.

    (*) And the only scenario I can think of is when using VNC on a remote machine, which is probably not very secure to start with.

  24. Leif says:

    Thank heaven for that rogue feature.  That dev should get a medal.  "Progress toward making the balloons *less* annoying."  Exactly.  They could never be completely non-annoying.

  25. To help with this situation, Windows should show a balloon tip to notify the user whenever a balloon tip would have been shown but was blocked by the setting.

  26. To be fair, the article does say "You want to prevent balloon tips from being displayed ***in the notification area.***"

    [My attempts to fix the KB article have so far not been successful. -Raymond]
  27. dave says:

    Really what would be useful would be have a non masked text box with a checkbox on the right to enable/disable the masking.

    The iPhone handles this in a reasonable manner, I think: briefly displays the character you typed, then replaces it by the masking character.

    My Verizon-supplied router handles this in the most insanely annoying manner possible: displays a random number of masking characters for each keystroke (i.e., the number of on-screen splats is greater than the number of characters entered).

  28. Lockwood says:

    @dave: As did my Android handset and my Windows Phone phone.

    That router sounds like it needs a beating.

  29. alegr1 says:


    Don't give them any idea. Once they went with "why don't we show a puppy when a user just wants to search files".

  30. Nick says:

    Not to mention that the setting is a negative option.  I wonder how many times a program has created the DWORD EnableBalloonTips and forgot to change the default value from 0 to 1?

    Creating an option called EnableBalloonTips with the default action of hiding them?  Icing on the cake :)

  31. Gabe says:

    It's sort of unfortunate that some settings appear to have unrelated consequences, causing people who report the consequence to not be able to tell what setting change caused it.

    For example, how would you ever be able to figure out that the "Do not save encrypted pages to disk" setting is what prevents you from opening attachments in Gmail?

  32. Fludd says:

    I know this is just a pipe dream, but wouldn't it be beautiful if you could, in a distant future, sort of ask the computer "Hey, why are you not displaying balloon tips here like you're supposed to?" and it replied "The option X in the configuration tool Y, which disables balloon tips, has been manually set to 0".

    Hey, why are you not posting my comment? What part of WebForm_DoPostBackWithOptions(new WebForm_PostBackOptions("ctl00$content$ctl00$w_4996$_b073f5$ctl00$ctl00$ctl00$ctl05$bpCommentForm$ctl05$btnSubmit", "", true, "BlogPostCommentForm-ctl00_content_ctl00_w_4996__b073f5_ctl00_ctl00", "", false, true)) do you not understand?

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