The contents of the Start page are not programmatically accessible


A customer wanted to know if is possible for an application to edit the user's Start page.

No, there is no interface for editing the user's Start page or even knowing what is on it. The Start page is the user's personal space and applications should not be messing with it.

Imagine if it were possible. Every application would edit the Start page to put themselves at the front!

It turns out that the customer wanted their application to make some changes to the user's Start page when it was installed. Specifically, they wanted to hunt down tiles belonging to their competitors and delete them, then insert a tile for the newly-installed program in exactly the spot the competitor's tile used to be.

In other words, somebody was looking to get a really nice bonus.

Comments (60)
  1. Brian_EE says:

    I was going to ask what a "Start Page" was, but then figured out it must be that "Make a desktop computer look like a fruit phone" thing you call Windows 8.

    [Strike two. This always happens whenever I mention Windows 8. One more strike and I'm taking the Windows 8 stories out of the queue. -Raymond]
  2. Prophy says:

    It's truly amazing that they didn't see anything wrong with doing that. How many of these sociopaths are in the software industry?

    By the way, I'm a long-term lurker and I just wanted to say thanks to Raymond for all these interesting insights. I don't understand why there's always so much sneering and snarking in the comments though. This is hardly the place to whine about Windows 8/Windows Vista/technology du jour, however you feel about it.

    Cheers, Raymond. Looking forward to more stories!

  3. John says:

    [Strike two. This always happens whenever I mention Windows 8. One more strike and I'm taking the Windows 8 stories out of the queue. -Raymond]

    Thanks in advance!

  4. Erik says:

    @Raymond: Please don't punish the rest of us by feeding the trolls. I expect most of us enjoy reading about Windows 8 and future versions to come.

  5. Alex H says:

    Raymond: Don't let people like Brian affect the content that you write on this blog.  Lots of people may dislike parts of the Windows 8 UI, but that doesn't mean that it should just be ignored and not discussed at all.  Besides, Windows 10 is looking excellent.

  6. Jimmy Queue says:

    Yeah i'm with Erik, @Raymond please tell us more about Windows 8. I am not a massive supporter of Windows 8 but I don't feel that should get in the way of learning about it (and maybe a path to changing opinions of it).

  7. Martin says:

    Maybe there is a way of taking the trolls out of the comments instead of taking the Windows 8 stories out of the queue.

  8. Joshua says:

    I would suggest pretending Windows 8 never existed and Windows went straight from 7 to 8.1

  9. Wear says:

    I will also put my name on the "Keep windows 8 stories in the queue" petition. I'm posting this on a Windows 8 computer and I even prefer the Start Screen to the Start Menu.

  10. Boris says:

    I agree. Please keep the stories, since you can always return the pre-emptive snarky comment.

  11. camhusmj38 says:

    Mr Chen, I think most of us would prefer you disabling comments to losing your interesting stories. If the bleating trolls are making you uncomfortable, let us all listen to your stories in perfect silence.

  12. Count Zero says:

    I really dislike the Windows 8 UI (and I would not afraid to use much stronger words for describing my feelings), but (or more explicitly: for that reason) I would like to hear more about it. The design decisions behind it, the background details and everything else. Please don't let Brian EE, John or the people like them deprive us others, of the pleasure of learning more about that thing. Talking for myself only: I solemnly promise I will not directly criticize Windows 8 on this blog.

  13. Christian says:

    I can't believe that these people don't realize the evilness of their intention and tell you what they want to accomplish.

  14. Kemp says:

    @Prophy

    Unfortunately people are unable to see past their particular pet hatreds, and feel that any discussion should always be about their thing. This happens in real-life discussions as well, and tends to result in that person gradually not being invited to things in the long term. The online equivalent would be to ban or mute them, but I suspect MS has rules about banning people on blogs with their name on (just a guess).

    With regard to the topic... wow. I mean, points for honesty, but they lose them all for being evil.

  15. jmac_the_man says:

    Raymond, please keep Windows 8 stories in the queue. If you have to disable the comments to keep trolls out, that's fine, but a lot of people, myself included, have a pretty good handle on "old Windows" and would like to get your unique perspective on "New Windows."

  16. Count Zero says:

    @Kemp - I think it has something to do with those people being customers of Microsoft and in certain conditions they even pay for the support. :) (Which - of course - does not mean I would encourage Microsoft to provide an API to abuse the Start Menu/Start Screen/Taskbar/other user-customizable UI elements.)

  17. Brian_EE says:

    "[Strike two. .... -Raymond]"

    I was 100% serious when I said that I didn't know what "Start Page" referred to. (I take offense at the "trolling" accusations). Granted the second part of my comment was a little snarky, but only because I hate the whole "people are stupid and need fat icons shoved in front of them" paradigm that is bane of computer design these days - and I was specifically blaming Apple for starting that. If it had said "Windows 8 Starte Page..." then I probably wouldn't have commented at all.

  18. Entegy says:

    @Brian_EE You trolled with the "Make a desktop computer look like a fruit phone" line. Unneeded.

    Raymond, please don't remove the stories. Regardless of people's feelings, Windows 8 is part of Windows' history and I want to hear from you on that topic.

    [Especially since it wasn't even trying to look like a fruit phone. It was trying to look like that other phone. -Raymond]
  19. ErikF says:

    Isn't this basically the same issue that you addressed with the Start menu pin list (blogs.msdn.com/.../54760.aspx)? In both cases, the resource in question belongs to the user exclusively, not any random program!

  20. Joshua says:

    Oh great. Raymond saw what he expected to see and took offense. Too easy to do. I should know.

  21. JohnW says:

    Cesar:  You're right that 'you can't do that' won't stop them, but the point here is that MS had the wisdom to not create an API that would make their nefarious deeds easy to do.   Similar approach as to hiding/showing icons in the system tray.

  22. alegr1 says:

    Didn't they have a legal department to slap their heads upside? Messing with competitors' products could open them to a liability.

  23. Gabe says:

    I really have to wonder if the sort of program that wants to do this is even the sort of program that a user intentionally installs.

    I have a feeling that this is more like the sort of software that somebody uses because it's there, like a typical browser toolbar (although obviously a browser toolbar isn't accessible from Start).

  24. Simon Farnsworth says:

    @Cesar - it won't stop them from trying. It does make it harder for them to claim innocence once caught - it's not a case of "oh, we used the documented MS API; did we do a bad?", it's a "we went trawling for ways to do this, even though there is no documented MS API. We're obviously not just making an innocent mistake."

  25. Gabe says:

    When they got their response from MS, do you think they said, "Sorry, boss, it's just not possible!", or "No problem, we'll just reverse engineer Explorer.exe and inject a DLL to do what we need!"?

  26. Blair says:

    I don't understand. The start screen is personal space of the user. And the start menu isn't? And the desktop isn't? And the wallpaper isn't? And the documents, musics, videos and pictures folders are not? All (and more) of these have quite a few APIs to enable modification of content in various ways. I'm not supporting that start screen should have an API for adding/removing tiles. But what's the boundary here? Even the screen can be thought of as the user's personal space; so what, the applications should not be allowed to draw on it then?

  27. SimonRev says:

    Blair,

    I wish I had some of Raymond's old posts at my fingertips.  He covers this point.  It goes essentially:  Back in the old days we trusted developers to do the right thing.  We trusted that you wouldn't mess with the wallpaper unless you were a wallpaper switching app (and presumably advertised yourself to the user as such).  You wouldn't mess with the start menu except to discretely insert a link to your program upon installation.

    Essentially developers proved Microsoft's trust misplaced and so now there are lots of parts of the UI that there is no API for to prevent us from mucking about with settings that are simply user preference.

  28. Yuhong Bao says:

    [Strike two. This always happens whenever I mention Windows 8. One more strike and I'm taking the Windows 8 stories out of the queue. -Raymond]

    Let me suggest you a topic: http://www.neowin.net/.../page-30

  29. JJJ says:

    @Blair:  You misunderstand.  The start screen isn't the personal space of the user by some intrinsic natural law.  Rather, Microsoft has decided that the start screen will be an area that programs cannot modify, and has also decided that an area that is not programmatically accessible shall be called a user's "personal space".

  30. @Blair: Some of these need to be accessible to programs because that's where user files are.  The wallpaper API is back from the ancient days of Windows when programs could do anything they wanted (although it's somewhat deprecated with the new personalization system in Windows Vista+).  Not sure about the start menu (never had to work in that area), but installers and uninstallers need to be able to add shortcuts and groups as appropriate.  Of course, those APIs are more granular and attempt to prevent these types of abuses.

    The boundary is, "what's the least level of privilege an arbitrary program should have over this feature that allows for standard use cases to work but prevents misuse?"  It's a fine line and usually pretty messy.

  31. Cesar says:

    @Raymond: You *know* that, not having an API available, said customer is going to prod at the registry (or wherever the Start Screen component hides its configuration) and edit it directly, right? And that later on Windows 9 and beyond you are going to have to do even more backwards compatibility contortions to keep said costumer's program from breaking things?

    You're dealing with people who think pretending to be a competitor's program is acceptable. "You can't do that" isn't going to stop them.

  32. alegr1 says:

    All these problems are because of the obsolete security model, where everything accessible to an user is accessible to all applications running under this user's account. In that model, there are no application-specific permissions and filesystem areas. I suppose, the new Win8 model is trying to sandbox the apps, but I don't know how successful it is.

  33. Anon says:

    @Cesar

    That's one of the points I keep trying to get across about Windows propping up godawful developers. The good news is that this app *probably* isn't going to be popular enough to get a compatibility shim in future versions of Windows.

  34. xpclient says:

    Not making the Start screen programmatically accessible sounds like a reasonable design to me to prevent program installers from abusing their rights and promoting their shortcuts. But then why did Windows 8 RTM automatically pin almost every single EXE shortcut (except the uninstallers) to the Start screen? Thankfully that was fixed with Windows 8.1. Not that fixing it makes the Start screen itself appropriate for mouse/keyboard users :)

    For the Start Menu, this change was made in Windows XP itself which banished the Fast Items area to inside the All Programs menu. And with Windows 7, the Taskbar also received this treatment still apps have found ways to programmatically pin their shortcuts to the Taskbar. In fact, I would be glad if this change was extended to the Desktop too so program installers can be stopped from putting their shortcuts there. For backward compatibility, a Group Policy can be added to allow programmatic shortcut creation on the Desktop.

  35. I think "don't touch things that don't belong to you or you don't have permission to touch" seems to be a lesson a lot of developers need to learn.

  36. Dennis Johnson says:

    @xpclient

    [In fact, I would be glad if this change was extended to the Desktop too so program installers can be stopped from putting their shortcuts there.]

    It's not that easy, since there is no specific API for that. All they do is call the generic function SHGetFolderPath, using CSIDL_DESKTOPDIRECTORY or CSIDL_COMMON_DESKTOPDIRECTORY and create a file (read: shortcut) in there.

  37. David Rawling says:

    Sadly the abuse of APIs by a small subset of developers has led us to a point where what I'd call "reasonable" modification is no longer possible - to wit, the preparation of a corporate PC image with pre-defined icons for the starting point is now a case of copying binary data files to the default profile, and we can't even have group policy to enable "add an icon to the start menu if it's installed by SCCM" because we all know the moment that works, some developer will decide that's HIS method of shoving crap down the user's throat. Want different icons for different users? You have to prep different images, force layouts with Group Policy or send instructions you know the users wont follow.

    So thanks, you (admittedly small but annoying and selfish) subset of developers, you've stuffed it for everyone, and I can't express here the vitriol I would wish to (nor the vicious punishment I think you deserve).

  38. Destroyer says:

    Raymond - Please don't stop posting about Windows 8 because of a few unhelpful comments in here. I think Windows 8 is an excellent operating system and it is nice to see it making an appearance in your blog.

  39. cheong00 says:

    For the sake of curiosity, I look around the bits of the web and found that while adding Tiles is difficult, removing Tiles (of *shiver* competitor) is easy.

    You just need to ask the questions in the correct keywords.

  40. meh says:

    Take into consideration that about 60% to 80% of hate towards windows 8 comes from people who have only seen the start screen never actually tried it out and roam the internets claiming Windows 8 is the devils evil twin.

  41. ender says:

    >  In fact, I would be glad if this change was extended to the Desktop too so program installers can be stopped from putting their shortcuts there.

    I've got the opposite problem: my program's installer doesn't add a desktop icon by default (only an icon in the Start menu - not even in a folder, since it's a single icon), and quite a few people have no idea how to find the program afterwards - to them no desktop icon means "program failed to install".

  42. xpclient says:

    @Dennis Johnson, how hard can it be? They can use permissions. So the user can create Desktop shortcuts but installers can't. Installers run as admin. Microsoft own the OS source code. I am sure they can design a way. :)

    @ender, the Desktop isn't meant to be filled by large amounts of icons or pretty soon it will be filled with icons. The Start Menu exists for organizing that kind of complexity. Desktop has no way to scroll unless you open it via Explorer. Plus, it requires all windows to be sent to the background or minimized in order to access anything on the Desktop. Plus there is the lovely wallpaper which looks like a mess as you fill up the Desktop. The Start button/menu being always-on-top allows you to open programs without minimizing everything and can organize things better.

    [You said it yourself: Installers run as admin. They are already on the other side of the airtight hatchway. -Raymond]
  43. Count Zero says:

    @xpclient - By saying "the Desktop isn't meant to be filled by large amounts of icons or pretty soon it will be filled with icons.", you have fallen into the common mistake of IT people by assuming the average user uses her/his machine like us. Most users don't install lots of software; Office (or one of its clones), a browser (in Europe Explorer usage is not too common), an antivirus, the software required to handle work brought home, and sometimes one or two games. That is 5 - 10 icons on a desktop > 1280px x 1024px. That hardly fills the desktop. Most users also use the desktop as a misc folder for temporary documents and downloads, and even then it is not overrun with icons.

    Also imagine if software could not write to the desktop (without permission). Microsoft would be overrun with tech support requests saying "All my downloads fail.", "Word can't save a single document.", "Everytime I would like to save a picture in paint I got an error message." (You know all dialog boxes are error messages to an average user.).

  44. AC says:

    This is the internet. Yes, it's your private blog, but still, what did you expect.

    There's going to be trolls everywhere and these here are really not of the worst kind. There's really no reason to take personal (or professional) offense. Just ignore the usual off topics snarks, which are totally to be expected. And on the rare occasion you get slashdotted and attract a wider audience of trolls, delete the comments or close them.

    You need to grow a thicker skin if some snide remarks on the internet have any kind of influence on you. There's too much idiocy out there to even consider listening to it all.

  45. Steve says:

    Yes, please keep the W8 stories in the queue, don't let the eejits put you off.

    I'm already up to here by the similar eejits (maybe the same ones) who use the first comment on any post/blog/thread about Windows 10 to say 'Ha ha ha whatever happened to Windows 9 look at me aren't I clever to make that eejit comment nobody has ever made before', and it's still months before release. Ho hum.

  46. RonO says:

    @Count Zero As I don't live in Europe, I can't comment on the comparison of desktops between there and the US. However, I can say that of the desktops I've seen in my neck of the woods, there's a lot of clutter. I'm not in the habit of interviewing the people who own those desktops, though. Perhaps most of them are simply victims of malicious software attacks which install unnecessary programs. I can speak for my household. My son's desktop is cluttered by a lot of Steam games. My girlfriend's desktop is cluttered by a lot of icons for both programs and documents (plus she has Windows 8.1 and the start page/screen is a complete mess). My personal desktop is very uncluttered, but I have diligently remove unwanted icons (I have two on my machine in the office and less than a dozen on my machines at home).

    @meh Count me in the 20-40% left over. As I mentioned a couple lines up, my girlfriend's start screen is a mess. I'm not a fan of the Windows 8 UI and while it may not be hate, I can certainly say it's loathing at the very least. I've learned to work with it, but it still gets in my way with several annoying aspects. My own systems remain Windows 7 for the time being. That said, I'm not advocating removal of Windows 8 stories from Raymond's queue. I like his writing style, humor, and presentation and it would be a sad day to lose such a valuable guide in the vast wasteland or mediocrity that is the Internet.

  47. Count Zero says:

    @RonO - My (bracketed) half sentence about Europe and browsers only targeted the browser topic. AFAIK in the USA Explore is much more popular and wanted to prevent people lecturing me on the (questionable) futility of installing browsers, or about the related habit of the average user. I don't really think general user behavior differs here. Also I was writing about the average user, not gamers (like your son), and normally functioning (non-malware infected) computers. As I have also written lots of documents swarming the desktop is a regular phenomenon here too, and - while I would never do that (I usually have one or two text documents on my desktop in addition to software.) - I don't really consider that a mistake.

  48. dirk gently says:

    This story is super scary. Honestly, I can barely believe people like that exist.

    It's a shame Raymond is not allowed/willing to share the name of the company that asked this question. I, for one, would like to be warned not to buy any of their stuff.

  49. SimonRev says:

    @XPClient -- for what it is worth (and I know I am an anomoly): I am strictly a keyboard/mouse user.  When I installed Windows 10 it took about five minutes before I changed the setting to use the start screen instead of the start menu.  Turns out I got used to the start screen in Windows 8 and like it better than the Start menu of Win 7.

  50. bzakharin says:

    So, wait, if you can't add your app to the start screen, how does the user who installs a new app ever find it? Or is there some installer support for this? Or are metro/modern/store/universal/whatever apps treated differently?

  51. Guest says:

    @Boris

    At the bottom of the start screen it'll show '# New Apps Installed'. The user clicks that and it shows what is the equivalent to the All Programs menu, the user can then pin it from there if they so choose.

  52. xp.client says:

    @Count Zero, I was talking about blocking the programmatic or more specifically *automatic* shortcut creation on the desktop by installers. Not about making the desktop read-only so whatever operates in the user's security context will all fail to write to it.

  53. Count Zero says:

    @xp.client - Installers have to be run as administrator to gain access to the registry and system folders. AFAIK that is the highest security level, high above the normal user context level, so if a user can write the desktop, an installer can to. It only can be "worked around" by not giving access to literally "anyone" except explorer.exe if it is directly instructed by the user. Can you imagine the chaos it would cause? A folder which can not be accessed by administrators but can be written by users? Also... who on Earth do you think runs the installers? Users. How do you distinguish between "good" writes on the desktop and "evil" ones if all of them are performed by programs run by users?

  54. Random832 says:

    And if I, the user, want to write a script to switch between two layouts on alternate Tuesdays, I'm just out of luck.

    > How do you distinguish between "good" writes on the desktop and "evil" ones if all of them are performed by programs run by users?

    You could require it to be done by an API which displays a protected UI that cannot be bypassed. I believe some mobile OSes use an approach like this for allowing an app to have a user attach a file to something. (In principle, the file chooser box in a browser is the same thing, from an earlier era - you can't programmatically populate it from Javascript)

  55. Mary Branscombe says:

    Some years ago I feel into conversation with the PM owning Windows installer technology and asked for a setting where the user could choose what would be ticked by default when installing desktop software - as someone who didn't use the quick launch bar and wanted a clean desktop I wanted not to have to uncheck those boxes all the time. Another user could have chosen to always tick them. The PM saw the developers as his customer and suggested this kind of option would not be popular with them, which made me sad. Outside of corp managed desktops, my PC is *my* PC. Should be my choices.

  56. SilverbackNet says:

    @Random832, it doesn't even have to be a UI that can't be bypassed, just having an unexpected speed bump on the way would be more than enough. Microsoft would certainly never force people to hit twice as many UAC prompts for every install. It must be possible to inject an add-on that could give a stop/go prompt for any writes to certain folders, even administrative. It doesn't have to be UAC, just being rarely used and unexpected is enough. Alternately, simply monitoring all writes to certain folders in the background and prompting to automatically delete new changes.

    Sounds like a useful tool to promote to people who are obsessed with clean desktops yet can't be bothered with deleting things themselves.

  57. 640k says:

    This was probably a browser vendor which wanted to replace IE. I guess it's time for EU step in again and make the monopoly market more fair. Again.

  58. John Doe says:

    @Raymond, I know I'm usually on the dark side of comments around here, but it's not the first time you handle this kind of thing.  I mean, you never stopped blogging about specific problems, even though someone would break the rules and try to guess the product and/or company.

    Just add it to the rules: "no snarking about Vista, 8, Explorer, IE or whatever, go do it in your own blog."  At least, your consciousness will be clear when deleting those comments.

    Don't let them get to you, they're grown up kids trying to take you down to their level or merely p**s you off for fun.

  59. Marc K says:

    I wouldn't be surprised if Raymond is asked to remove all the Windows 8 stories from the queue anyway after Windows 10 comes out.

    http://www.computerworld.com/.../microsoft-wants-you-to-forget-windows-8.html

  60. Anonymous Coward says:

    I also dislike Windows 8, but I don't complain about unrelated aspects of it every time there's a Windows 8-related post. Another vote for keeping Windows 8 stories.

    @John Doe: conscience*

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