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Windows Confidential: Start Me Up?

What happened to the Fast Items on your Start menu? They got folded in with your other programs.

Raymond Chen

When the Start menu was first introduced, there was a reserved spot where you could place your favorite shortcuts for quick and easy access. This area was known as the Fast Items. It appeared at the top of the Start menu, separated from the regular Start menu items by a grooved line.

You could add items to the Fast Items section of the Start menu by dropping an object on the Start button. The Start menu would create a shortcut to the item and add it to the Fast Items area. Naïve as we were, we also provided a way for programs to determine the location of these extra-special favorite shortcuts. That’s how things were back then—programmers were trusted not to be evil.

As you might have expected, programmers abused this privilege and began shoving shortcuts into private space set aside for end-user customization. They presumably did this to show off how awesome they were and maybe to impress their bosses so they could get nice bonuses.

Once one person starts abusing a feature, everybody else says, “Hey, if we see another program doing this, we want to do it too!” Soon, the Fast Items became a wasteland of “Things you don't actually need quick access to, but instead get in the way of what you’re really trying to do.”

Back to the Drawing Board

As part of the Start menu redesign for Windows XP, the Fast Items were moved to the top of the All Programs list. There was a subtle separator line to indicate where the Fast Items ended and the regular programs began. The programs in the Fast Items list still had their special placement, but it was no longer quite as special.

A customer asked, “We noticed that in Windows Vista, our program no longer appears in the Start menu. This appears to be a bug in Windows Vista; users can no longer find our program.” The customer included before and after screenshots. In the Windows XP screenshot, the customer’s program shortcut appeared at the top of the Fast Items list, separated from the everyday, uninteresting, and significantly less awesome programs by a line. In the Windows Vista screenshot, no such separator line appeared, and the shortcut no longer appeared at the top of the list.

Windows Vista continued the trend of gradually eroding the special status of the Fast Items list. The Fast Items no longer received preferential treatment in the list of programs that appear when you click All Programs. They’re sorted alphabetically along with all the other programs. Even though they’re stored in a special Fast Items list, they’re displayed as part of the regular All Programs list, mixed in with the riff-raff of normal, everyday programs.

Upon closer inspection, the shortcut to the customer’s program was indeed in the Windows Vista All Programs list, sorted alphabetically with all the other programs on the Start menu, as designed. The customer glanced at the top of the Start menu, didn’t see it and simply gave up. Ironically, the customer didn’t even notice the screenshot was taken immediately after the program was installed. Therefore, the properly sorted shortcut was highlighted on the Start menu.

In response to this explanation, the customer responded, “We would really like to get the line back so our application appears in an area by itself. Is there any hidden setting that can bring the line back?”

No, there’s no hidden setting to bring the line back. The code that draws the line was deleted from the project. No amount of hidden settings will write code that doesn’t exist. While you may think that your program is the most important program on the face of the planet, your users might have a different opinion.

 

Raymond Chen’s Web site, The Old New Thing, and identically titled book (Addison-Wesley, 2007) deals with Windows history, Win32 programming and the illusory repair powers of black electrical tape.

 

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