Microsoft Open Sources its first file manager

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Windows has undergone major cosmetic changes over the past decade, but Microsoft is committed to backward compatibility like no other software maker. In fact, the original Windows file manager remains works fine on Windows 10 by means of some new open source code. If you want to relive the 90s style of file management, now is your chance.

Consumers may be keen on buying flashy MacBooks and inexpensive Chromebooks, but Windows remains the de facto standard for businesses and governments around the world. Many of them relate to old and inefficient Windows software suites, so Microsoft is careful not to break backward compatibility. Programs from decades ago can still work, including Microsoft’s first file manager.

With the release of Windows 3.0, Microsoft fully embraced the graphical user interface by allowing users to manage files without delving into DOS command lines. Windows File Manager was a forerunner of Windows Explorer with all of the basic file manager functionality. It could open directories, delete, copy and move files.

The source code was taken from Windows NT 4.0 in 2007 by longtime Microsoft employee Craig Wittenberg. He’s been managing the code ever since, and now it’s officially released as open source under the MIT license. You can get it on GitHub right now if you’re curious. The code requires a few small tweaks to run on Windows 10 in 32-bit mode, but there are already forks that compile in 64-bit mode without issue.

File manager as it appeared in Windows 3.0.

Just because it works doesn’t mean you’ll want to use it. The experience is still recognizable as a file explorer these days, but it’s lousy and the interactions are deeply awkward by modern standards. There’s almost no implementation of right-click context menus, and some of the more common keyboard shortcuts don’t work. The icons are also incredibly low res.

While Windows Explorer and other file managers let you network windows on your desktop, the original file manager is a single window that contains other smaller windows for browsing your files. This was known as the Multiple Document Interface (MDI), which was a popular way to deal with limited office space in the 90s.

Under the MIT license, you can download, modify, and use Windows File Manager almost any way you want. It can even be integrated into proprietary software as long as it also carries the MIT license. At this point, the value is mostly just nostalgia, which is why Microsoft opened it up.

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Donald E. Hollingsworth