Why doesn’t a program show up on the Start menu’s Recently Used Programs list if I just used it to open a document?


A customer had a question about the Start menu's Recently Used Programs list: Start with a brand new machine. If you double-click a document which is associated with a program, the associated program does not appear on the Start menu Recently Used Programs list. In order to get it to show up there, you must explicitly launch the program directly (rather than indirectly via a file association). This behavior is consistent across all applications. Is this a bug or a feature?

This was a strange question, because it didn't seem to be particularly actionable. I mean, whether it's a bug or a feature doesn't change the fact that that's what you get, and it doesn't change what you are going to do in response.

Is it a bug, or
is it a feature?
It's a bug It's a feature
Deal with it Deal with it

What's more, the precise algorithm by which a program earns a position on the Recently Used programs list is not documented; indeed, the algorithm has changed many times over the years. So whether it is a bug or a feature, it's a bug or feature that is subject to change at any time. Which kind of renders the distinction pointless.

I pointed out to the customer liaison that this seemed to be a pointless question, seeing as the answer won't actually affect the customer's next step. As part of the initial contact, the customer liaison asked how the customer was being affected by this, and that's when we learned that the customer is being blamed by his manager of setting up the computer incorrectly, and the customer wants to be able to shift the blame to Microsoft. (Apparently, the customer is willing to spend money on a support incident if it will let him dodge blame.)

And even with this background information, the conclusion as to whether the behavior is a bug or a feature still doesn't affect what the customer does next!

Is it a bug, or
is it a feature?
It's a bug It's a feature
Blame Microsoft Blame Microsoft

Anyway, the answer is that it's a feature. There are many programs that get launched programmatically or indirectly, and the Start menu doesn't want to clutter the Recently Used Programs list with programs which the user may not recognize, or programs which users are not even expected to run manually at all! Therefore, in order to appear on the Recently Used Programs list, the user must have explicitly launched the program directly.

Comments (15)
  1. Pierre B. says:

    My guess is that either they meant it’s a bug from their side (they are doing something wrong) or, maybe, if it’s a bug then there may be a work-around that does what the user expected. I can easily envision, though, that the user was working under the kind of manager who thinks he’s always right and was so sure the start menu to worked in this particular way and his underling was “obviously” incompetent. They exist.

  2. Don Porges says:

    Geez, I don’t know, maybe the customer has the bizarre idea that if it’s a bug, Microsoft might fix it? Also, buried inside “it’s a feature” — as a synonym for “not a bug” — is the possibility that there’s something the user could do to get the behavior they want. I didn’t realize the Microsoft philosophy had so explicitly arrived at the point of mocking their customers for wanting to either control their computers, or to at least predict how their computers will behave.

    1. But until that fix arrives (which could be quite some time, if it ever does), they will still have to deal with it. They never asked for a fix or a workaround. They just want to know whether it’s a bug or a feature. That is not a useful distinction if the response is the same regardless.

    2. alegr1 says:

      > is the possibility that there’s something the user could do to get the behavior they want.
      That’s cute…as cute as the XP search puppy

  3. BZ says:

    There are instances where the answer does matter. Not, of course, if the answer is just “it’s a feature”, but if the rationale behind the feature is explained, the customer may come around to your way of thinking and endorse the behavior. On the other hand, if it’s a bug, then yes, blame Microsoft, but, more productively, maybe it’s already fixed in some sort of service pack or there is information on when it will be fixed.

  4. Josh B says:

    Well, you launch software directly from the recently used programs list, so it makes sense that that’s the way they get on there. Meanwhile if you launch software from a document, that document will appear on recent documents, enabling you to launch it that way again. Sounds intuitive to me.

  5. Makes me wonder how Windows knows.
    The first easy approach would mimic what most webpages do, click track links in the start menu. But I assume that the RUP list would also grab EXE’s run directly (standalone’s on the desktop, maybe I navigate to a game’s app folder, etc).

    I suspect that it’s when the *shell* launches an app (parent process == explorer). As I recall, Raymond mentioned that the run command also shims the parent process back to the shell, so Start -> Run -> path-to-EXE would also work… the only questionably odd behavior would be launching task mgr to access the Run command (from the task mgr), which I’m unsure gets shim’ed to explorer or to task mgr (if at all).

  6. Karellen says:

    Surely if it’s a bug then it’s actionable, because you can *file a bug report* and expect for work to commence towards some kind of resolution in the (distant?) future. Rather than cluttering up a bug tracker with noise that’s just going to get immediately resolved as “WONTFIX”.

    Alternatively, they might have been literally asking “is this a bug or a feature”, and hoping that the answer is “yes, it is a bug or a feature”. Because if it’s *either* of those things, then it’s not a misconfiguration on their part and they *can* “blame” MS, unlike if the answer was “no, it’s a configurable option” where they would have to accept the blame for misconfiguring the system.

  7. Joshua says:

    Those two paths go back together when you add in the fourth box: Educate manager.

    > (Apparently, the customer is willing to spend money on a support incident if it will let him dodge blame.)

    Makes a lot of sense actually, use employer’s budget to avoid blame placed by employer and therefore stay employed.

  8. Boris says:

    But did you also skip the decision tree and communicate to the customer that yes, it is his fault, sorry, because the manager clearly needed something pinned to the Start menu (or the taskbar in Windows 7, haven’t really used 8+). Getting it to appear on the Recently Used Programs list, and later possibly disappear, doesn’t seem to be what the boss had in mind here. Of course, I’m merely using ψ debugging here, but it should’ve been possible to confirm the hypothesis with the customer.

  9. DWalker says:

    Many years ago, I worked with mainframe computers. The standing joke back then was that if something seemed to be working strangely with the mainframe, and you complained to The Big Company that something seemed buggy, they might say “that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. We need to make sure we are charging you extra for that feature”. Presumably, you (the customer) would then say “nevermind”.

    In your example, I agree with Karellen – I suppose that if the customer discovered that the behavior was a bug, they could ask Microsoft to fix it.

  10. Boris says:

    But did you also skip the decision tree and communicate to the customer that yes, it is his fault, sorry, because the manager clearly needed something pinned to the Start menu (or the taskbar in Windows 7, haven’t really used 8+). Getting it to appear on the Recently Used Programs list, and later possibly disappear, doesn’t seem to be what the boss had in mind here. Of course, I’m merely using ψ debugging here, but it should’ve been possible to confirm the hypothesis with the customer.

  11. cheong00 says:

    I remember that once upon a time, my ex-boss wants me to be able to restore the value of file upload control when user hit the “Back” button on our webpage. I told him this cannot be done (because all the controls on that form are generated on-the-fly on user request via javascript). And he also wants to file support incident to “fix it”.

    I explained to him that we used to be able to do that on IE/Netscape 1 – 3, but this was explicitly disabled on both IE and Netscape because it is a security vulunerability, which can be used by malicious website to steal files without user’s knowledge when user postback data. There is simply no chance for either vendor to bring it back.

  12. Scarlet Manuka says:

    I think this is the key phrase from Raymond’s post: “programs which users are not even expected to run manually at all”.

    Programs should only start showing up in the Start Menu if users are going to run them from the Start Menu. Otherwise it’s unnecessary clutter and takes the place of a program the user might actually want to see there.

    However, since Windows still doesn’t have a time machine, it doesn’t know which programs users are going to run from the Start Menu in the future. So it takes a best guess based on which programs they have run from the Start Menu in the past.

    1. cheong00 says:

      [… since Windows still doesn’t have a time machine …]

      Not really. In the scene the user “double-click a document which is associated with a program”, if that program exist in a start menu shortcut, you can safely assume it’s expected to be run by the user.

      Yes it’s more work to be done, but no time machine is required for it to work.

      1. Chris Chilvers says:

        Except the set of programs I run directly from the start menu and the set of programs I launch by double clicking a file are not the same. Most of the apps that show up on my start menu are the ones that have no relevant files (thus nothing for me to double click), or those where I want to start with a blank file.

      2. Scarlet Manuka says:

        I disagree. If the user launches a program by double-clicking a document, the only thing you should assume is that they will probably launch it in the future by double-clicking other documents. It’s not at all definite that they would want to launch it without working from a document.

        Examples of programs that I personally often launch from documents but never launch directly: photo viewer, Acrobat Reader. Adding these to my start menu would not be useful.

        1. cheong00 says:

          I assume any installer will create shortcut to “programs that made to be run by users” on start menu folders.

          Even those “driver” packages creates unhelpful “Uninstall” shortcut as the only shortcut in the folder the installer creates. _-_

  13. Kai Schätzl says:

    Well, asking for the fix might be the *next* step. First determine, if you are doing something wrong, then ask why it happens, next try to understand if you can live with it or even can take advantage once you know it works like it works and why it works that way. You are taking the raw question a bit too literally, Raymond.

  14. Don Reba says:

    In Windows 10, the list is limited to 6 entries and consists mostly of programs I use to open files and never launch directly. You’ve got Word, Excel, Media Player, and Adobe Acrobat Reader.

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